In a sparsely populated county in southern Utah, man is imitating nature.
Just as male sage grouse posture and threaten to brawl over turf during mating rituals, state and federal officials are in a tense standoff over a coal-mining operation’s proposed expansion near the habitat of birds in the area.
Federal officials say a move by Alton Coal onto 3,600 acres controlled by the Interior Department could decimate the tiny population of sage grouse there. State officials say the mine’s growth would create sorely needed jobs, with displaced sage grouse easily flying to another spot nearby.
This sharp disagreement comes less than two months after the two sides supposedly resolved the issue of better protection for a species that once numbered in the millions. Today, fewer than 400,000 birds survive across the West.
In exchange for a five-year conservation push by 11 states that invested money and other resources to keep the federal government from invoking the Endangered Species Act and taking over millions of acres of sagebrush, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided against listing sage grouse as threatened or endangered.
But the Bureau of Land Management still moved to protect them with new rules that would limit mining, development and cattle grazing — all of which represent lucrative revenue for industries and the states.
The battle over the mine expansion is proof that those proposed rules are not widely embraced and that the federal-state agreement is built on shaky ground. Not only do officials differ sharply on how to reduce human effects in the bird’s habitat, they don’t agree on whether state or federal agencies should lead it.
A decision by the BLM, which manages public land controlled by Interior, is expected by the end of the month. Alton Coal could not be reached for comment.
“It’s definitely the first big test post-listing decision,” said Allison Jones, a wildlife biologist and director of the nonprofit Wild Utah Project, which opposes the expansion. “A lot of promises were made to keep the sage grouse from being listed. Let’s see if those promises are kept.”
From Washington to New Mexico, states in the vast sagebrush range have much to lose. The range covers 160 million acres with mineral deposits worth billions of dollars. The estimated value in Utah alone is $40 billion.
Days after the BLM and U.S. Forest Service announced the new conservation plan in late September, Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter (R) sued the federal government, saying its restrictions on industry were too harsh.
Otter complained that the Obama administration essentially ignored Idaho’s efforts to improve sage-grouse conservation. “In many ways, these administrative rules are worse” than restrictions that would have resulted from an endangered listing, he said.
Weeks later, the administration of Utah Gov. Gary R. Herbert (R) took a swipe at federal officials. Public lands director Kathleen Clarke sent an angry letter to the BLM’s state office, criticizing it for saying Utah officials agreed with a federal assessment that land near the proposed mine expansion site was unsuitable for development because sage grouse were there.
“It is readily apparent that the BLM is mischaracterizing the state’s position to force conformity” with a federal rule that would essentially halt the project, Clarke wrote.
The Public Lands Office has also accused the bureau of backtracking on its previous assessment of state efforts to create an alternate place for the birds to nest. As part of that work, Utah removed juniper trees that allowed predators to perch and launch attacks on sage grouse, forcing them to flee to other areas.
Interior spokeswoman Jessica Kershaw said the federal government’s reasoning is clear. Based on Alton Coal’s 2011 environmental impact statement , which suggested that pockets of birds might be harmed, “the BLM has determined that the tract is unsuitable for surface mining,” Kershaw said.
The agency is still considering the company’s proposed expansion, she added, because a technicality gives it a chance to move forward if BLM “determines that all or certain stipulated methods of coal mining will not have a significant long-term impact on the species being protected.”
Even with that BLM determination, conservationists are worried. For decades the agency provided industry leases despite warnings about environmental impacts — leases that they contend contributed greatly to the sage grouse’s decline.
Jones, of Wild Utah Project, said the small group of sage grouse near the mine site is the only population that far south. “If there’s another group, we don’t know about them,” she said. “That makes these special. They have shown an ability to expand from the larger group.”
Her organization is one of several that doubts Utah and other states will continue working to save sage grouse. In these groups’ views, the states allowed industry to drive the species to the brink of an endangered listing.
John Harja, a senior policy analyst in Utah’s Public Lands Office, sees it differently, noting that much of the country demanded the region’s resources to help power economic growth.
Alton’s environmental track record also undermines the environmentalists’ trust. This year the company was fined $3,200 for improperly constructing ditches that released sediment-laced wastewater, according to a story in the Salt Lake Tribune. Regulators also placed a hold on a $10 million bond for a phase of mining because Alton failed to complete reclamation work, the story said.
And the Deseret News in Salt Lake City has raised questions over whether Herbert can be impartial about the expansion. Four years ago, the paper has reported, his campaign aides cashed a $10,000 check from the company “on the same day [the governor] sat” with its representatives to hear their complaints about regulators. The governor’s office said the check arrived days earlier, with the deposit that day a coincidence.
Alton Coal is running out of coal to recover with the 600-acre strip mine it operates. The company wants to expand to the additional 3,600 acres of federal land, plus nearly 250 acres of private property, to tap 400 million tons of coal over the next decade.
“Is every square inch essential to the species? It’s not,” Harja said. “Trust? Yeah, I see where they’re saying that. But it’s also the economy of the West that’s at work here.”