Feds extend comment period on plan to close areas to mining

The greater sage grouse is at the center of a clash over habitat conservation.

BOISE, Idaho — The U.S. Bureau of Land Management has extended the public comment period on the agency’s plan to withdraw 10 million acres of public lands in six western states from potential mineral extraction to protect habitat for the greater sage grouse.

The comment period will last about three additional weeks to Jan. 15, with public meetings scheduled in Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming in December.

The BLM is seeking comments ahead of creating an environmental impact statement before making a final decision on whether to withdraw the public lands for 20 years.

Some aspects federal authorities want to analyze include the economic effects of withdrawing the lands, wilderness characteristics, American Indian resources, mineral resources and recreation.

“We really want to make sure everyone has the opportunity to comment on the proposed withdrawal,” said BLM spokesman Mark Mackiewicz.

The proposed withdrawal of the lands — subject to an 1872 mining law meant to encourage development of Western land — is part of new U.S. policies announced in September. At the same time, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said sage grouse didn’t need federal protections under the Endangered Species Act.

Under the 1872 mining law, federal officials don’t have the discretion to deny mining claims. Withdrawing the 10 million acres from being subject to that law would allow BLM officials to block mining claims.

The 10 million acres are already under a two-year freeze from new mining claims while the BLM prepares its environmental impact statement. The freeze doesn’t affect mining claims already in place.

Jack Lyman of the Idaho Mining Association said banning mining on 3 million acres in Idaho would limit future mineral extraction.

“This is a big issue for the mining community,” he said. “This is where we’re going to find the minerals in the next 5, 10, 20, 50 years.”

John Robison of the Idaho Conservation League said withdrawing the lands is a good step.

“The priority of just about everything else over sage-grouse is why this amazing bird was being considered for protections under the Endangered Species Act,” he said in a statement.

John Freemuth, a Boise State University professor and public lands expert, said the two-year review will give the BLM an opportunity to see what kinds of minerals are in the 10 million acres that are considered key sage grouse habitat.

How much, if any, would end up being set aside is unclear. The decision in two years would be made by the administration that follows President Barack Obama’s.

Freemuth said excluding some sage grouse habitat from the 1872 mining law could play a role in a federal judge’s decision involving federal lawsuits that have already been filed challenging restrictions in sage grouse areas.

The withdrawal could also play a role in federal court, he said, if environmental groups opt to file lawsuits challenging the decision not to list sage grouse, a bird about the size of a chicken. Males are known puffing their chest feathers and dancing while vying for female mates.

“In that sense (the withdrawal) was proactive to create enough evidence for a federal judge should there be a lawsuit from the environmental side,” Freemuth said.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in five years will also revisit whether sage grouse need federal protections.

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