Infrastructure law funds Nevada sagebrush restoration projects

Infrastructure law funds Nevada sagebrush restoration projects
ish and Wildlife Service biologists Chris Jasmine and Susan Abele discussing sage-grouse habitat with Smith Creek Ranch Manager Duane Coombs in central Nevada. (USFWS photo)

by Jeniffer Solis, Nevada Current

WASHINGTON — Nevada will be receiving a total of $1.5M for projects across the state meant to fund sagebrush habitats in an effort to combat invasive grasses and wildfire, protect wetlands, and support the regional economy.

Funding from the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act signed into law last year will support 15 projects across the state, including a study on the impacts of mining exploration and development on sagebrush ecosystems.

A majority of the funds—more than $995,000 — will be dedicated to building fences to protect sagebrush habitat from grazing cattle and large scale removal of native pinyon juniper trees, which the department says would reduce wildfires and increase habitat for species that require open sagebrush lands free of trees.

The highest funded single project— more than $400,000— is earmarked for sagebrush restoration in White Pine County for mule deer and sage-grouse, which would consist mostly of removing native pinyon-juniper trees and building fencing to protect springs from grazing cattle.

Sagebrush habitat restoration projects in Nevada will be done in partnership with various government agencies and private landowners who operate ranches in rural Nevada.

The Department of the Interior said many of the projects funded by the bill will increase resilience to drought and wildfires by restoring wetlands and combating invasive grasses.

A large portion of Nevada’s funding would go to protecting spring ecosystems that are vulnerable to overgrazing by livestock. More than $490,000 will be dedicated to protecting and managing springs and wet meadows around the state. 

Those funds include multiple projects to build and repair fencing around springs and wet meadows, a project to improve habitat for the endangered Clover Valley speckled dace, and funds to seed springs with native forbs and grasses.

“This is an historic opportunity to put resources into the health and natural infrastructure of America’s sagebrush ecosystem, which serves as the lifeblood of rural communities and Tribal lands in the West,” said Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland in a statement. “President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is the largest investment in the resilience of physical and natural systems in American history and will meaningfully advance on-the-ground efforts to promote healthy sagebrush landscapes and communities that have been threatened by the climate crisis.”

However, conservation groups and Native American tribes in Nevada have long criticized the Bureau of Land Management for its strategy of cutting down thousands of native juniper-pinyon trees as a way to mitigate wildfires and increase sage-grouse grassland habitat.

The destruction of sagebrush habitat in Nevada has led to the population decline of the sage-grouse, a flightless bird native to the west that is not listed under the Endangered Species Act despite a population drop of as much as 80% since 1965 and and 40% since 2002.

Sage-grouse have been threatened by human activity, including mining, expanding agricultural operations, and oil and gas development, as well as the effects of climate change.

“Almost all of these projects are either direct pinyon juniper removal, or direct subsidies to the livestock industry to clean up after the mess that cows leave in their wake,” said Patrick Donnelly, the Great Basin director for the Center for Biological Diversity. “Rather than addressing the reasons that sage grouse populations are declining, like inappropriate cattle grazing and habitat loss due to mining and oil and gas, the administration is doubling down and funneling more money into the destruction of our pinyon juniper woodlands.” 

About 120 million acres of sagebrush habitat covers the American West and is home to more than 350 million species, however, the sagebrush ecosystem is increasingly at risk from the spread of invasive non-native grasses due to wildfire. Cheatgrass and other invasive grasses now cover one-fifth of the Great Basin, fueling intense fires and damaging habitats.

Climate change has led to an increase in the area burned by wildfire in the West. Analyses estimate that the area burned by wildfire from 1984 to 2015 was twice what would have burned had climate change not occurred.

The agency has acknowledged some of the possible consequences of large-scale tree removal in the Great Basin. One of the projects being funded in Nevada is a study to monitor how the declining pinyon jay, a small blue songbird, responds to the large-scale removal of its woodland habitat.

A pilot study on the effect of mining on sagebrush habitat will also be one of the projects funded in Nevada. Mining is increasing within sagebrush ecosystems in Nevada and will have adverse effects on the environment, but the impacts of mining on sagebrush dependent wildlife has not been closely studied in the state, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In March, Nevada Democratic Sens. Jacky Rosen and Catherine Cortez Masto led a bipartisan group of Western senators in a letter to Haaland urging funding for the restoration of sagebrush ecosystems. Rosen praised the Biden administration for the dedicated funding.

“Sagebrush restoration helps support biodiversity, contributes to Nevada’s economy, and can help reduce the threat of wildfires,” said Rosen in a statement. “I am proud to announce that Nevada will receive more than $1.4 million for 15 projects throughout our state to restore sagebrush ecosystems and protect our precious landscape in Nevada.”

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