Nevada needs tools to stop the extinction crisis (opinion)

Nevada needs tools to stop the extinction crisis (opinion)
The bleached sandhill skipper, a rare butterfly that lives only in a single meadow in Humboldt County and is threatened by a geothermal power plant. It is unprotected and unmanaged by any state agency. (Photo by Patrick Donnelly/Center for Biological Diversity)

by Patrick Donnelly, Nevada Current

Nevada’s is among the most unique biodiversity of any state in the union – and it’s under assault by industry, mining, sprawl, and the ravages of climate change. Substantial reforms are needed to the state’s management of rare and imperiled species to avoid the extinction of Nevada’s species or a dramatic increase in federal Endangered Species Act listings. 

Biodiversity, the assemblage of all the plants, animals, fungi, and microbes that make up life on earth, is essential for humans’ continued existence. Biodiversity is what gives us clean air to breathe, clean water to drink, puts food on our plates, and puts a roof over our heads. 

There is a global extinction crisis, wherein species are going extinct literally every day across the globe. The United Nations has estimated that as many as one million species are at risk of extinction. 

And that extinction crisis is knocking on Nevada’s door. According to the Nevada Division of Natural Heritage (NDNH), there are 646 at-risk species in Nevada – plants and animals that are at-risk of extinction without conservation efforts to save them. This is the third most of any state. Additionally, there are 196 species on a watch list, which could become at-risk. Nevada has 48 species listed under the federal Endangered Species Act, and 78 species listed under the state’s endangered species regulations. Since European colonization, eight species have gone extinct.

The federal Endangered Species Act is the primary tool used to prevent extinction. The Act makes it the policy of the United States to prevent extinction, and puts species listed by the federal government as threatened or endangered under federal jurisdiction. This is in contrast to non-listed plants and animals, which by default are managed by the states. This transfer in management authority upon listing is why federal listing has been traditionally resisted by most Western states.

Nevada has some statutes on the books to manage endangered species, but they are weak and mostly unenforceable. Nevada Department of Wildlife (NDOW) has authority over state listed animals; Nevada Division of Forestry (NDF) has authority over state listed plants. However, state listing is primarily an administrative function, and permits to kill species listed as endangered by the state are regularly given without environmental review or public input. In recent years, NDF has given out permits to kill Webber’s ivesia in constructing the Stonegate master planned community north of Reno and Las Vegas bearpoppies for the Lima Gypsum mine near Las Vegas, all without environmental review or public input.

There are currently nine species in Nevada which have been petitioned for federal Endangered Species Act protection, most by the organization where I work, the Center for Biological Diversity. Some, like Tiehm’s buckwheat and the Dixie Valley toad, have become quite high profile, and are illustrative of the fundamental issues at play here.

In both cases a proposed development—a lithium mine for Tiehm’s buckwheat and a geothermal power plant for the Dixie Valley toad—pose existential threats to these narrow endemic species. And in both cases, state agencies have failed to take action to stop the proposed developments and now the species are going to be listed under the Endangered Species Act. 

There are dozens more imperiled species that we’ve identified that could qualify for Endangered Species Act protections which we are considering petitioning, including the Monte Nevada paintbrush, the Amargosa toad, and the Pahranagat montane vole. 

Thus, if Nevada hopes to stem the extinction crisis and the tide of incoming federal endangered species petitions, the state must reform its management of biodiversity. We have identified three key gaps in biodiversity management, and suggestions to remedy them, which I recently presented to the legislative interim committee on public lands.

Policy Gap: Nevada Department of Wildlife has no statutory authority to manage terrestrial invertebrates (insects). Currently terrestrial invertebrates, including butterflies, beetles, and other non-pest insects, are unmanaged in Nevada. NDOW has no ability to protect or restore habitat for terrestrial invertebrates, nor to implement conservation measures to prevent their being listed under the federal Endangered Species Act. The legislature should give NDOW statutory authority to manage terrestrial invertebrates, and resources to hire scientists to manage them.

Policy Gap: Nevada Division of Forestry is not the appropriate agency to manage endangered plants. NDF’s primary role is coordinating and executing the state’s wildfire suppression and prevention program in an era of rampant increase in wildfire activity. Managing endangered plants is an afterthought for NDF, and they are unable to muster the resources necessary to prevent state endangered plants from becoming listed under the federal Endangered Species Act. Forty-three states have an endangered plant conservation program. Most of those programs are administered by the state’s department of wildlife or by the same agency as the wildlife management program. Only four states have endangered plants managed by the department of forestry. Meanwhile, the only endangered plant issue that NDF has been asked to engage on isTiehm’s buckwheat, and they have failed to take action. The Legislature should transfer management authority over endangered and regulated plants, including cacti and succulents, to NDOW.

Policy Gap: No agency in Nevada has statutory authority over non-endangered plants.  One of the key reasons that rare plants could become in danger of extinction is due to a lack of management and protections. This is a driver of federal Endangered Species Act listings. If an agency was empowered to proactively manage and protect non-endangered plants, it could implement habitat management and restoration, regulatory protections, or other mechanisms to ensure rare plants do not become endangered, thereby helping to prevent federal Endangered Species Act listings. The Legislature should give statutory authority over non-endangered plants to NDOW.

Ultimately, once the management of biodiversity in Nevada has been properly consolidated and authorized, the legislature should substantially revise and update the Nevada Endangered Species Act to reflect the realities of the 21st century extinction crisis. The state of Nevada needs to have authority to “say no” to projects that will drive species extinct. If NDOW could say no to the Dixie Meadows geothermal plant, perhaps the Dixie Valley toad wouldn’t need federal listing. 

In the meantime, these simple fixes of current gaps in Nevada’s regulatory structure for rare and imperiled species will help consolidate and streamline management and give the state the best possible chance to stop the extinction crisis. 

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