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A Greater sage-grouse male "lekking" near Bridgeport, California. Photo Credit: Jeannie Stafford/USFWS

Gov. Brian Sandoval issued an executive order Friday that asks a state commission to require energy and mining companies to offset the impacts of their activities on Greater sage-grouse, an imperiled bird that has come to symbolize the tension between conservation and development.

Notably, the executive order seeks to extend Nevada’s mitigation requirement to projects on federal land, which comprises more than 85 percent of state land. The Trump administration largely repealed mitigation requirements for developers earlier this year.

Map of the Greater sage-grouse range. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

The executive order instructs the state’s Sagebrush Ecosystem Council, which meets next week, to create regulations that require developers to mitigate their land disturbances through Nevada’s Conservation Credit System. The credit system was central to Nevada’s plan for bringing back populations of the nearly-endangered bird, which roams 11 Western states.

That plan was crafted in 2015, when the Obama administration struck a bipartisan deal with Western governors, industry and environmentalists not to list the bird under the Endangered Species Act if the states pursued strong conservation measures. Many argue that a listing under the act would undermine rural economies and bring development to a halt. Yet the 2015 plans have since been amended by the Trump administration, raising the spectre of a future listing.

On Thursday, the Trump administration released its final amendment to the 2015 sage-grouse plan, removing designations that protected the bird’s habitat from development and creating other exceptions to the Obama-era rules. For months, Sandoval’s staff had been lobbying the administration to let the state continue requiring mitigation for the sage-grouse. That authority, buried in technical language in the 600-page document, was given to the state on Thursday.

If it remains in place, it would allow the state to require that energy and mining companies pay into a credit system to improve habitat for the grouse. Scientists have argued that it is more effective to focus on restoring sage-grouse habitat than to focus solely on boosting the bird’s population numbers. The grouse, known for its flamboyant mating dance, relies on the West’s sagebrush sea, an ecosystem threatened by fire and climate, for food and predatory cover.

The regulations, which need to be approved by the Sagebrush Ecosystem Council, would require the use of the state’s Conservation Credit System. The system offers a market for companies to buy mitigation credits that would offset their disturbance in Nevada. Landowners are allowed to sell credits on the system if they improve sagebrush habitat to the state’s criteria.

Reporter ask Gov. Brian Sandoval questions about wildfire, invasive species and sage-grouse after an event at the MontBleu Resort in Lake Tahoe on Monday, Sept. 17. (James Glover/Western Governors Association)

In September, Sandoval said the credit system was working, calling it a critical part of the state’s plan to meet its obligations for the bird to remain off an Endangered Species Act listing.

“We’re able to demonstrate that [the program] is working,” he said. “Don’t take something away that is working. And it took a long time to negotiate that with the mining industry and now the mining industry is a full partner in that regard. That was the point. To preserve the bird, to preserve the landscape and allow a very important industry in our state to continue.”

Until the regulations are approved, the order instructs state agencies to work with federal land managers to “implement mitigation strategies.” The state typically is not involved in permitting energy, grazing and mining projects on federal public land. But that authority was given to the state on Thursday when the Trump administration released amendments to the 2015 plan.

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