In Nevada, federal wildlife officials have brokered a landmark conservation deal with a gold mining company that the government says could help protect thousands of acres of critical habitat for the greater sage grouse.
Under the agreement announced Thursday, the company Barrick Gold Corp., the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, The Nature Conservancy and the Bureau of Land Management are setting up a "conservation bank." It will essentially work like this: each time the company improves sage grouse habitat on its private ranch lands, it gets a credit in that bank. It can then trade that out for expanding gold mining on federal lands in the state, subject to federal approval.
You can think of the deal as similar to how private companies sell and trade carbon credits when it comes to curbing greenhouse gas pollution. Except that in Nevada, we're talking about a multinational gold mining company — Barrick North America — and of course, the sage grouse - a small sage-brush dwelling bird that's a current "candidate" species for the Endangered Species List.
This agreement, which was first proposed by the company, comes at an important moment in the West. Many landowners in eleven western states are anxious over the Department of Interior's possible listing of the sage grouse. The move could come as early as this Spring.
Under the Endangered Species Act, once the bird is put on the endangered list, it will limit mining operations on western range lands.
Some counties in states like Oregon have already started adopting contingency-like conservation plans, especially after the government moved to list the greater sage grouse's cousin –- the Gunnison Sage Grouse late last year.
It looks as if the Department of Interior hopes today's announcement –- and agreements like it — can be mimicked in other states where development is encroaching on important sage brush lands and prairies where the sage grouse once thrived. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has maintained that its primary goal is to keep the bird off the list.
"This is the kind of creative, voluntary partnership that we need to help conserve the greater sage-grouse while sustaining important economic activities on western range lands," Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said, in a statement.
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