Citing fewer fawns per doe and declining numbers of greater sage-grouse, Gov. Steve Sisolak signed a new executive order on Monday that aims to safeguard the state’s sagebrush ecosystem and its animals through a Nevada Habitat Conservation Framework.
In a statement, Sisolak said his executive order was designed to protect the migration patterns of wildlife species ranging from pronghorn to the sage-grouse, who live and move across the sagebrush environments that cover more than half the state. That environment also fuels Nevada's outdoor recreation economy that’s estimated to create 87,000 jobs, generating $4 billion in wages and salaries each year.
Environmental authorities report that wildfire, invasive species and climate change are putting the sagebrush more than 360 of its species at risk — leading to the framework’s creation and a requirement for state agencies to develop mitigation plans.
“Whether it is mule deer or desert tortoises no animal thrives without a healthy ecosystem,” Sisolak said in a statement, “and this executive order puts a crucial focus on the corridors through which wildlife migrate to survive.”
The framework will “provide for habitat conservation, restoration, rehabilitation, and protection” for sagebrush lands in coordination with private landowners, federal land management agencies and relevant state and local agencies, according to text from the executive order. It also focuses on providing animals with migration routes that keep them safe from roadways.
Included is the state wildlife department, which through the executive order has been directed to create a Sagebrush Habitat Plan meant to more effectively conserve the declining sage-grouse population and evaluate how policy changes could combat identified threats to the ecosystem at large. The department will also create a Connectivity Plan to be completed by the end of 2023 that will better identify migration corridors and secure those for animals by working with the transportation department to plan infrastructure.
Three department heads in Sisolak’s administration will lead the project. Tony Wasley, who directs the Department of Wildlife, will collaborate with the state departments of conservation (led by Brad Crowell) and transportation (led by Kristina Swallow) to conserve wildlife habitats, address wildfire and invasive species threats and maintain ease of access for animals through the corridors.
The order was lauded by environmental groups and progressive advocates — from Western Resources Advocates to the Institute for a Progressive Nevada — along with sporting groups.
“We look forward to working with the Governor’s office and the Nevada Department of Wildlife in seeing [the framework] implemented so that healthy big game herds in places like the iconic Ruby Mountains will continue to provide world-class outdoor experiences for future generations of sportsmen and women,” said Carl Erquiaga of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.
No one can say for sure when the first Tiehm’s buckwheat plants were destroyed last summer.
But what is clear is that by September, multiple surveys had reported large-scale destruction to about half of Earth’s only known population of the sensitive species, Eriogonum tiehmii, a rare Great Basin wildflower caught in the crosshairs of a heated political fight over permitting a mine.
When the destruction was disclosed in September 2020, it lit off a powder keg, and the question quickly turned to who was responsible for the widespread damage: Was it humans or rodents?
State and federal agencies — in addition to environmentalists — began investigating the case.
What struck biologists was not only the scale of the damage but the seemingly targeted nature of the attack and the pace at which it occurred, a time range amounting to a geologic blink. What caused the damage, and why target this particular species?
Ben Grady, a botanist at Ripon College and the president of the Eriogonum Society (eriogonum is the scientific name for buckwheat family), described the scale of the destruction as stunning.
“We've taken something and basically cut the population in half,” Grady said.
The Tiehm’s buckwheat is distributed across roughly 10 acres of land at the base of the Silver Peak Range near Tonopah. Its habitat is extreme, even for the Great Basin, and a passerby could not be blamed for writing it off as inhospitable. But through the long process of evolution, the plant has eked out an isolated existence on patchy outcrops of washed-out clay.
So what had changed to cause such widespread destruction to the species all at once?
Several pieces of evidence point to herbivory by rodents as a cause — perhaps the main cause — of Tiehm’s buckwheat damage. But no one was there, and no one can say for sure how it all happened. It’s likely that a degree of uncertainty about the cause will linger over the incident.
People want a clear narrative, but this is not a story of definitive scientific conclusions. Multiple scientists, in interviews, said the technical work of understanding the Tiehm’s buckwheat and why the destruction occurred is only starting. Meanwhile, the rare plant is at even greater risk.
The curious case of Tiehm’s buckwheat raises questions about the extinction crisis, the role of humans and even climate change. Dig deeper, and there is an unfolding scientific mystery that is closely tied to the climate politics of permitting a mine for lithium, a much-needed mineral to support the electric vehicles and massive batteries required for a decarbonized economy.
“When everything initially came out in September, there was a lot of controversy in terms of what happened and how it happened,” Grady recalled. “But the more jarring thing to me, after the dust settled, was we lost a lot of plants here, and this thing is in a heck of a lot of trouble.”
The initial suspect
The Earth is in the middle of its sixth mass extinction, and there is one primary culprit: humans. In the case of the Tiehm’s buckwheat damage, human activity became an immediate suspect.
As rare desert flora goes, the Tiehm’s buckwheat was already a well-known species by the time its population crashed. In the months prior, the diminutive yet charismatic plant had caught the attention of botanists, environmental activists, land managers and miners across the West.
Even before the large-scale destruction was first reported last August, the Tiehm’s buckwheat faced emerging threats from human activity. Environmentalists said mining exploration and the development of a proposed lithium mine posed an existential threat to the buckwheat species.
The area around the buckwheat, known as Rhyolite Ridge, had seen a sharp increase in human activity, with an Australian-based lithium company, ioneer, seeking to permit the lithium mine.
In late 2019, the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned state and federal regulators to protect the plant from extinction. The mining company pushed back, arguing that a mitigation proposal for Tiehm’s buckwheat would maintain the species and emphasizing the need for more lithium in supply chains for batteries and electric vehicles. The rhetoric escalated over the following year.
After the damage was uncovered, an early field survey by the Center for Biological Diversity, the group leading the charge to protect the plant as endangered, found evidence of footprints and new trails leading to the buckwheat. Their fieldwork suggested damage consistent with humans. The implication was that the mining company could somehow be responsible for the damage.
“The buckwheats appear to have been dug up by small shovels or spades,” the group reported.
Naomi Fraga, a well-known botanist and the director of conservation at the California Botanic Garden, helped author the report with the group’s state director, Patrick Donnelly. When Fraga observed the damage, she said her immediate thought was that humans dug up the plant. The destruction varied from plant to plant, and it affected plants far away from one another.
“That is one of the largest puzzles that is hard to reconcile with a natural event: the targeted nature, how specific it was and that it occurred across a whole range of the species,” she said.
Not all biologists were in agreement, and the investigation took a turn to scat.
If the genes fit
As the investigation proceeded, agency officials and the mining company pushed back on the theory of human-caused damage. Several surveys showed lines of evidence pointing to rodent activity. Perhaps a dry summer forced critters to consume food that they would not normally eat.
In fact, when the damage was reported to the state by a UNR graduate student in September, the student noted evidence of rodent damage and wrote in a report that “we did not notice any human or large animal tracks” in the immediate area. On follow-up surveys, biologists for state and federal agencies documented bite marks, burrows and another valuable clue: rodent scat.
Like law enforcement arriving at a crime scene, investigators collected samples and sent them to a lab. In animal droppings, soil tailings and damaged buckwheat roots were strands of DNA, traces of unique genetic material. If rodents were gnawing at Tiehm’s buckwheat, traces of the plant’s DNA should show up in samples, including the scat. Simply put, you are what you eat.
When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported the results of the DNA analysis in December, it supported that rodents — white-tailed antelope ground squirrels, to be specific — had caused the damage to the buckwheat. The study was another piece of evidence to figure out whodunit.
But these conclusions did not linger in the realm of science for very long. Within hours, the new report was injected with political weight. First, ioneer called a press conference with reporters.
James Calaway, an executive for ioneer, reported that the DNA evidence “conclusively shows that the destruction of Tiehm’s buckwheat at Rhyolite Ridge discovered in mid-September was exclusively animal caused.” The report, Calaway said, “categorically refutes the irresponsible assertion by the Center for Biological Diversity that this was an intentional human attack.”
That same day, Fraga, working with the Center for Biological Diversity, questioned how much information could be taken from study. Did it really leave humans off the hook for the damage?
Fraga said she “would be cautious about interpreting the result of this study as definitive proof that rodents caused the extensive damage observed at the Tiehm’s buckwheat population.” She noted that the area had been significantly changed from when the damage was first discovered.
As with most things, the reality was not fully satisfying to those who wanted a neat, conclusive answer. The Nevada Independent talked to the scientist who actually authored the DNA study.
“What people should take away from this study is it is just one piece of evidence in this story,” said Jacqualine Grant, who conducted the DNA analysis and works as an associate professor of biology at the Southern Utah University in Cedar City. “It’s not the nail in the coffin, as it’s being portrayed on one side. And it’s not loosey goosey as it’s being portrayed on the other side.”
Grant, whose background is in conservation biology, said the report “is strong evidence, but it’s not perfect evidence.” Yet she said that when the DNA analysis is taken in consideration of other evidence, such as roots with bite marks, the findings do “lend credence to this idea that somehow rodents were involved.”
From a scientific perspective, the idea that rodents could be responsible for so much damage is unusual, and it would represent a significant scientific finding.
"I couldn't find anything of this scale to a rare plant, and especially a buckwheat, that has been documented,” Fraga said. “There's nothing in scientific literature to suggest this would happen."
Fraga said she still believes human activity could have played a role, and she does not believe that the agencies fully investigated it, opting instead to focus on data that supported the rodent theory.
“I just don’t think it’s a case-closed,” she said.
In the weeks after the damage was reported, the agency investigation was coalescing around a hypothesis of what motivated the rodent behavior. Perhaps swings in weather, even driven by human-caused climate warming, were causing unexpected species interactions.
“We have to assume that the buckwheat population has been there for thousands of years, if not longer, and so have the rodents,” Grant said. “What was different about this year that made the rodents go after the buckwheat in a way that they had not done in previous years?”
There is one thing nearly everyone agrees on. The scale of the Tiehm’s buckwheat destruction was massive and unexpected. Tiehm’s buckwheat persists on eight rocky outcrops at Rhyolite Ridge, and each area represents a discrete subpopulation. These patches are natural but they look as though someone smashed and left several clay pots to dry in the middle of the desert.
Analysis of the damage, conducted by the mining company and a state official, found that all Tiehm’s buckwheat had been killed in two subpopulations with extensive damage in the other areas. According to data collected by the mining company’s consultant, EM Strategies, only about 38 percent of the population was intact after the plants were damaged last summer.
On Oct. 7, Jim Morefield, a supervisory biologist with the Nevada Division of Natural Heritage, filed a report on the destruction, summarizing the damage and hypothesizing what caused it.
He wrote that to the extent survey data “can be extrapolated over the entire Tiehm’s buckwheat population of about 44,000 individuals, one could estimate that 16,000 plants were killed and another 11,000 damaged, leaving about 17,000 plants undamaged as of September 17.”
What stood out to everyone was the scope and rate of damage to Tiehm’s buckwheat. In one email that was shared with The Nevada Independent, Kris Kuyper, biology manager for ioneer’s consultant EM Strategies, wrote that “the amount of plants damaged or dead is staggering.”
The email was obtained as part of a public records request the Center for Biological Diversity filed with state officials. The environmental group shared the records with several media outlets.
The emails showed that the investigation was being closely watched, not only by the scientific community but also by political leaders. One email, from Cathy Erskine, senior policy advisor for the Nevada Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, informed agency leadership that “the governor’s office is aware of and has taken interest in TB,” or Tiehm’s buckwheat.
Gov. Steve Sisolak’s spokesperson, Meghin Delaney, said in an emailed statement last month that “the governor’s office receives regular updates on a range of activities from state agencies” and that “it has received updates over the previous months on the progress of this issue.”
Although Morefield, who surveyed the Tiehm’s buckwheat in 2010, had encountered herbivory in Great Basin plants before, he said he couldn’t say he’d “ever seen anything this extensive.”
Herbivory on this scale is fairly rare, and it might be surprising under normal conditions, he said. But climate conditions at the site have been less than normal. He hypothesized that significant climate swings in recent years might have affected rodent populations and changed their diets.
After a dry summer, biologists like Morefield have seen an uptick in herbivory to native species.
Morefield is confident that rodents played a role in damaging the buckwheat. He said “the hypothesis best supported by the evidence to date is that one or more small mammal species caused damage to the Tiehm’s buckwheat populations over the period of a couple of months.”
When Morefield views the totality of the evidence, it points to herbivory by small mammals. If humans were involved, it was minimal. But when asked, he could not rule out the possibility of human-caused activity.
“I can’t, for sure, rule out that some human might have gone out on the site and vandalized some plants for nefarious reasons,” Morefield said. “I have seen no evidence to support that.”
From a botanist’s perspective, the findings were even more jarring, said Grady, who studies the buckwheat, a beloved species in the Western U.S. Grady knows a lot about the plant. He is, after all, the president of the Eriogonum Society, a group dedicated to buckwheat enthusiasts.
“I study buckwheat, and normally there is not a lot of herbivory on buckwheat,” said Grady, who has supported the Center for Biological Diversity’s efforts to protect the Tiehm’s buckwheat.
In general, Grady said rodents tend to avoid going out of their way to consume buckwheat.
Insect attacks on buckwheat are also rare. Buckwheats, Grady said, are presumed to produce a secondary chemical, as some plants do, that prevent them from attacks. Still, there is a lot that scientists do not understand about buckwheat in general and Tiehm’s buckwheat in particular.
“They are an interesting group of plants,” he said. “They are charismatic. A lot of these things are rare. But they are not a model species. We don't know a lot about a lot of these species.”
“There are a lifetime of questions,” he added.
For similar reasons, Fraga remains skeptical that rodents were solely responsible for the attack on the buckwheat. If they were, she said the findings should be published in a scientific journal.
“It would be extraordinary,” she said.
From a wildlife perspective, the scale of the rodent destruction was also surprising, although not entirely implausible. Before the DNA analysis identified white-tailed antelope ground squirrels as a possible culprit, the Nevada Department of Wildlife conducted a survey of the plant damage.
The report found evidence of foraging consistent with another species: pocket gophers.
“This damage is consistent with pocket gopher foraging activities and patterns,” Tony Wasley, the department’s director, said in a cover letter for a report on the agency’s survey findings.
“However,” Wasley wrote in October, “the scale over which the disturbance occurred by far exceeds known home range size for an individual pocket gopher. If the disturbance occurred within a short time frame and was the sole result of pocket gopher foraging, it would require that multiple individual gophers simultaneously switched to Tiehm’s buckwheat as a preferred forage item over a relatively short period of time. The likelihood of a synchronized event of selective herbivory for Tiehm’s buckwheat by pocket gophers although plausible, remains unknown.”
The report also identified white-tailed antelope ground squirrels as a possible suspect. Michael West, a state wildlife biologist who compiled the report, said in an email that the rodent species has several life history characteristics that could lead it to cause significant damage to plants.
These rodents have high reproductive potential, meaning that their populations can boom under certain circumstances. Their home ranges can extend as far as 15 acres, overlapping with one another. They are social, and they are aggressive in stocking up on food for winter, West said.
“Combined, these [characteristics] can lead to high levels of activity within a relatively small area and short period of time,” West wrote in an email last month, after the DNA study was released.
In that context, it might not be terribly surprising to see explosive population growth followed by a warm summer push rodents to eat plant parts they might not normally eat. Still, the situation is rare enough that many scientists have described it as anomalous and deserving more research.
For one, many rodents would be needed to consume the plants. Morefield’s report estimates that if 27,000 buckwheat plants were damaged or killed, 900 individual rodents would have had to have consumed one plant per day for the course of a month. If the rodents were hungrier and ate two plants per day in the course of a month, then it would have taken 450 individual rodents.
Of course, no one can say for sure that it happened — or didn’t happen.
“Many biologists wrote into the Fish and Wildlife Service with their opinions that this could not possibly have been caused by rodents because they’ve never seen it before,” said Grant, the DNA study author. “But just because we haven't seen it before doesn’t mean it cannot happen.”
Is it changing climate?
What many of the reports and surveys speculate is a scenario that unfolded with shifts in the climate. Morefield writes in his field report that temperatures in western Nevada last summer were about four degrees higher than the 30-year mean, and coupled with little precipitation.
It mirrored what was seen across the Great Basin last year. According to the National Centers for Environmental Information, 2020 marked the driest year on record for Nevada and Utah.
What’s significant is that this period of heat and extreme drought came after a winter period in late 2018 and early 2019 that saw above average precipitation that fueled vegetation growth.
Morefield and others, including West, the state wildlife biologist, said they could envision a potential scenario where rodents proliferated after rain and snow soaked the region only to face a stressful 2020 that forced ground squirrels to forage for food that they normally wouldn’t touch.
“After three previous relatively wet years, including the extreme water year of 2019, summer of 2020 was exceptionally hot and dry in this region (setting historic records at regional weather recording sites), and this could have led to sudden and increasing resource scarcity for local rodent populations,” Morefield wrote in his field investigation, which was filed last October.
West offered a similar potential timeline, but he said his speculation was observational.
“I do not possess and have not analyzed any quantitative data of vegetation, animal density or body size, or weather conditions related to the Tiehm’s buckwheat herbivory issue,” he wrote.
The hypothesis is bolstered by the fact that Morefield, Grant and other observers, including Las Vegas ecologist Jim Boone, have observed unusual herbivory across the Southwest this year.
Grant can’t say for sure what happened, and she said it might be impossible to ever know without many more years of studying the Tiehm’s buckwheat and its interactions.
But Grant, who studies ecology in the Intermountain West, said what is known is that climate change will have an affect on plants across the region. The problem is it’s still challenging to forecast.
“We don't know a lot about how rodents are going to respond,” Grant observed. “These biotic interactions are going to be affected by climate change, and it's somewhat difficult to predict.”
If the culprit is extreme heat and drought, driven by climate change, the blame falls back on humans. And the twist is that the extraction activity that threatens the Tiehm’s buckwheat — a lithium mine — is needed to address climate change and move to a decarbonized economy.
Ioneer, the company looking to develop the mine, has made this very point in materials it has submitted to the state about its proposed mitigation plan for the plant. In August, the company wrote that “working collaboratively to address difficult issues such as global climate change and species diversity is essential to balancing in ensuring Nevada’s economic and biologic integrity.”
Peter Raven, the president emeritus of the Missouri Botanical Garden and an author of a textbook on botany, is concerned about the interplay between both extinction and climate change.
“All of this is taking place in a much older biological framework,” Raven said.
To make it to what humans refer to as 2021, the Tiehm’s buckwheat and plants like it have had to evolve to the conditions of place, and they’ve survived in areas where their habitats remain. Both disruption to habitats and climate change can pose a threat to plants like the buckwheat, threatening species with extinction in a speed that is no match for the evolutionary process.
“No matter what happens, there is no guarantee that the buckwheat will be able to survive in that place in 20 years where it is now,” Raven said. “The climate’s changing very rapidly.”
And still, Raven, who has signed onto letters supporting efforts to protect the plant under state and federal endangered species law, said that it is essential to try to keep ecosystems intact.
One of his colleagues, Raven said, often says “if you don’t save it now, you can’t save it later.
At greater risk
Today there are cameras set up in the Tiehm’s buckwheat habitat. The plant is being closely monitored by everyone: regulatory agencies, scientists hired by the mining company and the environmental activists seeking to protect it under the federal Endangered Species Act.
Will rodents return next spring, or was the herbivory a one-time occurrence?
Everyone wants to see what happens next. Morefield noted that some damaged buckwheat are beginning to resprout, signaling that at least some Tiehm’s buckwheat plants could recover from the incident. But there still remain many unanswered questions, including the definitive cause.
The problem with rare plants is that, by being rare, they tend to be isolated and understudied. What botanists are looking for is how the Tiehm’s buckwheat responds. Morefield and others are still asking whether the Tiehm’s buckwheat has faced similar rodent attacks in the past.
But Morefield said it’s pretty clear the plant is at greater risk since the damage occurred.
“The smaller the population a rare species becomes, the more challenges it has to survive long-term,” he said, noting that the damage could affect reproductivity and genetic diversity.
Grant, the DNA author, said the damage signified the need to protect the plant. In addition to the evidence of the rodent attack, she pointed to the threats from mining and climate change.
“All of those things together say we really need to have a concerted effort to protect this plant,” she said. “And in the United States, our main mechanism for doing that is the Endangered Species Act.”
Calaway, an executive for the mining company, said at a press conference in December, that a listing under the Endangered Species Act was not the best course of action. He noted that the company has funded numerous studies and efforts to protect the plant voluntarily.
“What is a better approach is to have us working with responsible federal agencies committing contractually over many, many decades to that protection and preservation,” Calaway said.
Since the destruction, the Center for Biological Diversity has filed an emergency petition to list the plant under the Endangered Species Act. The environmental group has asked a federal judge to weigh in on the issue and require the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to take action. The case is pending.
On Monday, 101 scientists and 15 environmental groups plan to send a letter, organized by the center, to the incoming Biden administration, asking them “to take urgent and decisive action.”
Fraga said she has rarely worked with a plant in as precarious a situation. Before the damage, the Tiehm’s buckwheat faced a threat from the proposed mine. Today it is at even greater risk.
“In the beginning of this story in the journey of trying to protect it, it’s been significantly impacted,” she said. “Now the threshold or baseline has been shifted. It’s a tragedy.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service denied Endangered Species Act protection for the bi-state sage grouse, an iconic bird that roams western Nevada and eastern California, according to a document filed on the Federal Register website Monday.
In its decision, the wildlife service said that given existing and future conservation commitments, the bi-state sage grouse did not meet the threshold for a “threatened” species listing. The denial for legal protection under the Endangered Species Act comes two years after a judge forced the agency to revisit a similar decision in 2015, ruling that the agency had erred.
Environmental groups said on Monday that voluntary conservation efforts have been inadequate in preventing a long-term decline of the bi-state sage grouse, a distinct population segment of the Greater sage grouse, found across the state and known for its elaborate mating dance.
“Voluntary conservation projects over the past decade have been ineffective at turning around population declines, and fail to address the key threats facing this isolated population,” Laura Cunningham, the California director of Western Watersheds Project, said in a statement.
The decision affects a specific population of sage grouse that live along the border of western Nevada and eastern California. Although the area is largely rural, the species face a number of pressures, including habitat conversion, grazing, wildfire and drought.
In 2015, the Obama administration also denied proposed Endangered Species Act protection for the species after a working group secured $45 million in conservation funding.
Tony Wasley, the director of the Nevada Department of Wildlife, said state wildlife managers supported the decision not to list the bi-state sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act.
"The bi-state sage grouse conservation model is the epitome of collaborative science-based conservation," Wasley said in a statement included in a Fish and Wildlife Service press release. "Our department supports this decision, and I'm grateful to have another chance to showcase this conservation story."
Every year, thousands of mule deer make the southeasterly trek from the snow-loaded Jarbidge Mountains to the Pequop Mountains across I-80 between Wells and West Wendover. For many years and many mule deer, the highway atop their migration corridor posed an existential threat.
According to the Nevada Department of Wildlife (NDOW), collisions thinned the deer population by the dozens — if not the hundreds — as they attempted to cross I-80 or U.S. 93, from Wells to the Idaho border. It wasn’t just wildlife getting hurt. The Nevada Department of Transportation (NDOT) estimated that crashes were costing drivers millions. In some cases, they were fatal.
In the early 2000s, state officials started taking notice.
By 2006, wildlife and transportation officials began to discuss a longshot fix: animal crossings. At the time, the inconspicuous underpasses and overpasses — designed to blend in with the landscape — were viewed as costly projects that diverted funding from more important areas.
“After some of the first structures were constructed on Highway 93 by the [Nevada] Department of Transportation, we got beat up,” said Tony Wasley, who directs the state’s wildlife agency.
But “as those critics began to see the functionality of those structures,” Wasley said this week that “it was amazing to see the energy and the support from some of those same people that questioned the efficacy and the efficiency of the expenditures associated with those structures.”
Today the crossings are credited with helping thousands of animals migrate without being forced to risk a perilous sprint over the highway. Across the West, where busy highways crisscross swaths of open land, the structures are catching on as a way to reconnect fragmented stretches of wildlife habitat, offsetting the increasing pressures of development while keeping drivers safe.
NDOT estimates that an average of 500 wildlife collisions each year account for about $19 million in property damage and injuries. The actual number could be higher. That estimate does not include the cost placed on emergency responders or a species’ intrinsic value to the land.
Nova Simpson, a biological supervisor with the department, presented those numbers at the Governor’s Mansion on Tuesday as part of a summit aimed at reducing wildlife-vehicle crashes.
Compared to other states, Nevada was an early adopter of the crossings. The state completed its first project on U.S. 93 in 2010 at a cost of about $2.2 million. Over the next four years, NDOT found that more than 35,000 mule deer used the crossings on U.S. 93. Since then, Simpson has received regular calls from other states asking about funding and construction.
“Other states are definitely jumping on the bandwagon and doing these projects,” she said.
Across Nevada, the threats to wildlife and drivers vary.
In and around Reno, a big challenge are the feral horses that roam the Virginia Range, often seen crossing USA Parkway near the Tahoe Reno Industrial Center. Near Boulder City, the focus is on bighorn sheep, and near Elko, the department is still watching the mule deer.
To prioritize and effectively target crossings to the most affected areas, the agency has created heat maps that combine geospatial data on animal movement, carcasses and crashes. These maps make it easy to see where the most pressing challenges exist when it comes to collisions.
As the issues vary across the state, so do the solutions. Different species react to the crossings in different ways. In general, Simpson said prey tend to travel on the overpasses, shying away from the enclosed environment created by underpasses, which are preferred by predators.
Brian Wakeling, administrator for NDOW's big game division, said “getting in the mind of wildlife can be challenging.” But through data collection, the department has a good sense of how different herds move and how they might react to the crossings.
“Trying to keep herds intact is important for a variety of reasons,” he said.
Migration corridors allow big game species to be in the right habitat at the right time, Wakeling explained. That movement is critical for their nutrition and their ability to raise healthy offspring.
The goal of Tuesday’s summit was to expand the program by bringing more developers and partners into the planning process. Simpson said that animal crossings are increasingly being tacked onto planning documents, including environmental impact statements. Wildlife crossings were integrated into the construction of the Boulder City Bypass and USA Parkway near Reno.
“Simply having everyone at the table from the very beginning — developers, local agencies, and transportation agencies — we can develop innovations to help protect human safety, protect wildlife and habitat, maximize development opportunities and reduce costs to taxpayers,” said Kristina Swallow, who directs the transportation department, during a speech at the summit.
Funding remains one of the most significant impediments to building the projects. Costs can vary depending on whether the crossings are incorporated into original plans or added later.
The Boulder City Bypass crossings had a construction price tag of about $1.6 million, according to an NDOT spokeswoman. Some of those expenses were absorbed as part of the costs in the larger highway upgrade. On the higher end, a project to build a series of wildlife crossings near the Pequop range on I-80 cost around $20 million, in part because of the scale and timing.
Funding is one area where the federal government could step in.
Past projects have relied on state and federal dollars from a variety of sources, including the Highway Safety Program and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. In addition to new funding through a Department of Interior secretarial order, the federal government could make more funding available through Congress. As part of its transportation bill, the Senate has also been considering the creation of a pilot program that could open up $250 million in funding.
As a result of the secretarial order, Nevada received $287,000 to study big game migration corridors. Some of that funding has helped NDOW track antelope and map their movements.
Car collisions are not the only threat facing Nevada’s mule deer population.
The population — and its habitat — faces disruption and fragmentation from drought, invasive species, wildfire, mining and residential development. NDOW has created monitoring plans, tracked mule deer migration and worked to restore critical habitat along its migration route.
Wakeling said that a lot of species in Nevada are healthy. And in many cases, their populations are on the upswing. But he cited mule deer as one species that has had a “tough time” with their herd numbers stable to slightly declining. Although it’s difficult to pinpoint one specific cause, he added that they can be acutely susceptible to disruptions in their century-old migration paths.
“They are some of the creatures probably most affected by their inability to move,” Wakeling said at the summit. “They are the most predictable on where they’re going to move, when they’re going to move, and they have very limited adaptability to change where they’re going.”
Fourth of a five-part series examining outgoing Gov. Brian Sandoval’s legacy in politics, health care, economic development, education and the environment.
The get-along governor was not afraid to show his teeth.
When he convened cabinet meetings, Gov. Brian Sandoval, whose second term ends Monday, would tell his top advisers that if they were pleasing everyone, they were lying to someone, recalled Tony Wasley, who serves as the director of the Nevada Department of Wildlife.
“He wasn't afraid, as he put it, to show a little fang once in awhile," Wasley said.
In the nation’s driest state — with more than 85 percent of its land managed by the federal government — issues related to energy and the environment often pose a Gordian knot for policymakers. Nearly every land issue, from citing a renewable energy project to protecting an endangered species, involves an exhaustive list of interests: cities, ranchers, tribes, miners, environmentalists, farmers, hunters, regulators, federal land managers and at times, Congress.
Oftentimes, no one is wholly happy with the outcome of these complex, acronym-laden issues, which typically become the subject of lengthy lawsuits and are reduced to campaign rhetoric. In other words, they can be dangerous territory for politicians should they poke the wrong group.
“Politics are politics,” Wasley said in a recent interview. “However the governor always pursued what he felt was not only right but also [what he felt] was best for the state of Nevada."
Sandoval’s tenure was marked by debates over perennial issues for Nevada: water, land and development. The governor entered the fray in arguments over rooftop solar, siting renewable energy projects, public land expansions, grazing rights, drought policy, and controversial rules to protect the sage grouse, an imperiled bird that reflects the tension between development and conservation. If there was a lodestar to Sandoval’s approach on energy and land issues, his top aides said it was to ensure a balance between economic interests and the environment.
He was a pragmatist, they said, and not an ideologue.
At times, this approach has rankled groups on both sides of the spectrum. Environmentalists were frustrated with Sandoval over his initial silence in the rooftop solar debate, his veto of a renewable portfolio standard bill and his administration’s recent proposal to release about 500,000 acres of wilderness study areas for potential development. At the same time, many exploration geologists and rural counties took issue with the governor’s support for land restrictions to protect the sage grouse, which prompted a lawsuit from the attorney general.
But despite the criticism from both sides, his top aides said he did his homework — and he made the decision he felt was right, even if it meant reversing a prior policy position.
“He’s not a micromanager,” said Leo Drozdoff, the governor’s former director of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. “But he knows his stuff.”
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)
A sage grouse plan for Nevada
On Sept. 22, 2015, Sandoval joined two Democratic Western governors and Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, a fellow Republican, at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge in Colorado. The occasion was to announce a deal between the Obama administration and a group of bipartisan Western governors to keep the sage grouse from being listed under the Endangered Species Act if the states agreed to impose voluntary conservation measures. Sandoval had argued that allowing the bird to slip onto the list would halt mining and energy projects across the state, devastating rural economies. The sage grouse range encompasses most of the state. Accepting voluntary measures, he said, was a better long-term approach.
“He knew the consequences of inaction,” Drozdoff said.
But where some rifts are canyons and others are gullies, this was somewhere in-between.
As a spokeswoman for Sandoval noted at the time of the plan’s release, the governor remained concerned about the land restrictions in the original plan. And Sandoval has supported some aspects of the Trump administration’s changes to the original Obama-era plans. For instance, Sandoval’s office said it supported more flexible grazing and the removal of certain habitat designation as focal areas that had limited what activities could take place on public land.
Where Sandoval has remained steadfast is in advocating for rules specific to Nevada.
The 2015 planning process allowed states to develop specific blueprints for conserving sage grouse. And Nevada chose a free-market approach, whereby companies that wanted to develop on sage grouse habitat could offset their impacts by purchasing credits for restored habitat. The Conservation Credit System — a form of mitigation — was a key part of the state plan, but it came under threat when the Trump administration removed mitigation rules earlier this year.
In an interview with The Nevada Independent in September, Sandoval said he had concerns about the Trump administration's approach since it negated the long process of bringing groups — ranchers, miners, hunters — together to agree on a sage-grouse strategy before 2015.
“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.”
Since then, the governor’s office has negotiated with the Department of Interior to continue using the state plan, winning a big concession in a draft document in December. A few days later, Sandoval issued an executive order asking the state’s Sagebrush Ecosystem Council to implement Nevada’s plan by creating requirements for developers to mitigate their impact for sage grouse, requirements that the Trump administration had previously repealed.
Wasley called the executive order a “capstone” of Sandoval’s efforts on the issue.
“I really think that shows his desire to provide both business certainty — for industry’s operating on Nevada’s landscape — as well as conservation assurances for the bird,” Wasley said.
Electricians David Livingston, left, and Mario Rojas with 1 Sun Solar inspects solar panels in Las Vegas on Tuesday, March 28, 2017. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)
The double-edged sword of deliberation
For those who watched the Sandoval administration, what the sage-grouse debate exemplified was the governor’s desire to bring together varying interest groups to discuss a complex topic. It also showed Sandoval’s commitment to a multi-step process, rather than to one quick decision.
In 2012, after the sage grouse inched closer to a listing under the Endangered Species Act, Sandoval created the Sagebrush Ecosystem Council to explore options for protecting the bird, and the recommendations from that group were ultimately incorporated into the Nevada plan.
“The governor, in many of the things he did in his tenure, brought together all sorts of interesting groups that might not have necessarily [talked],” said Dana Bennett, the president of the Nevada Mining Association who was involved in negotiating the sage grouse plans.
Many said the governor often used his affable nature and his knowledge of issues to his advantage, personally meeting with whomever he had to influence. Drozdoff said this was evident early on in his term, when the governor, as Drozdoff put it, faced two choices: pull out of the bi-state Tahoe compact or advocate for changes to ease development restrictions.
After Nevada threatened to withdraw from the agreement with legislation in 2011 without the development of a new regional plan, Sandoval and Gov. Jerry Brown came together in 2013 to ensure they improved the compact while continuing a collaborative approach to Tahoe issues. During the 2013 session, Drozdoff noted that Sandoval personally met with California legislators during a trip to California, the kind of touch that helped the Nevada governor negotiate.
“They took great comfort that they heard from him directly,” Drozdoff said.
But during his tenure, the governor’s deliberative and thoughtful approach, an asset for creating policy, sometimes worked against him in a fast-moving public arena where everything is politics.
Nowhere was this more apparent than the debate over rooftop solar. The messy back-and-forth between rooftop solar companies and NV Energy over the value of an emerging technology garnered national headlines, seeping into the presidential race as Hillary Clinton weighed in. Others, from Tesla CEO Elon Musk to actor Mark Ruffalo, who spoke at a regulatory meeting, chimed in, too.
As hard as Sandoval tried to stay out of it, solar companies brought him into the debate. Caught in the middle was a governor who deferred to a process underway in the Public Utilities Commission, which regulates the utility and decides how much it should reimburse solar customers for sending excess electricity to the grid under a system known as “net metering.”
A vice president for policy at rooftop solar company Sunrun slammed the governor for his close relationship with top NV Energy lobbyists. The company sued for text messages between the governor’s office and NV Energy. A spokeswoman for the governor’s office fired back, telling Nevada Independent Editor Jon Ralston the claims were “uninformed, false and outrageous.”
At issue was a decision by the utilities commission, a governor-appointed regulatory panel, to reduce the value of credits NV Energy had to pay to rooftop solar customers starting in 2016. Solar companies slammed the commissioners — and the governor who appointed them — for cozying up to the utility. The governor, a former judge and attorney general who had experience in energy as a former lawyer for utility shareholders, said he would not interfere with the ruling.
During those months, the conflict between NV Energy and rooftop solar firms (dubbed the “solarcoaster” by some) escalated as the utilities commission dug in and the governor’s office continued to publicly maintain its commitment to letting the regulatory process play out.
But that started to change in March, as the governor pivoted to a collaborative public process similar to the one used to come to an agreement over how to protect sage grouse habitat. At that point, the governor’s office became more actively involved in diffusing the situation.
“My view is that he did what was appropriate,” said Rose McKinney-James, a former utility commissioner and a rooftop solar lobbyist involved in the negotiations. “The debacle around rooftop solar was extremely frustrating, and it was a very difficult time for us from a regulatory standpoint. When they let us down, to his credit, he intervened. And that intervention is what put the rooftop solar issue back on track by identifying new regulatory leadership to revisit it."
Sandoval empaneled the New Energy Industry Task Force in 2016 to explore legislation to modernize Nevada’s electric grid and fix elements of the commission’s rooftop solar decision. At the task force’s first meeting, Sandoval aide Dale Erquiaga acknowledged that months of criticism over the issue had damaged the state's reputation as a leader in clean energy.
“We would like your advice on how we move beyond that,” Erquiaga said.
Around the same time that the task force started meeting, Sandoval met with the CEO of Sunrun, which agreed to drop its lawsuit. Over the summer of 2016, his office also tried to broker a deal between NV Energy and solar companies that ultimately fell apart.
"The commission took action,” said Paul Thomsen, the chair of the utilities commission during the rooftop solar debate and a former energy aide for Sandoval. “It wasn't popular. And I think the governor stepped in when he felt that he needed to bring balance to the debate. He commented on the commission decision and voiced support for a happy medium."
Angie Dykema, head of the Governor’s Office of Energy, started with the administration during the peak of the rooftop solar fight, and said the issue was a challenging one. The governor did not want ratepayers to pick up the cost of rooftop solar customers. But at the same time, a key priority was expanding renewables, and Sandoval wanted the rooftop solar industry to remain.
“He wanted that message to be loud and clear,” she said. “And it got kind of muddied, I guess.”
With new faces at the utilities commission and legislation that Sandoval signed in 2017, the governor was able to lure rooftop solar companies back to the state 18 months after they left.
“I know all the solar folks are here — I know we had a little hiccup in between all of this — but without that I honestly do believe we wouldn’t be standing here today with the success that we’re having so I really am pleased,” Sandoval said at the time of the bill signing.
Gov. Brian Sandoval, right speaks while Former Sen. Harry Reid looks on during the National Clean Energy Summit at the Bellagio on Friday, Oct. 13, 2017. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)
A business outlook on renewables
Within the Sandoval administration, the rooftop solar debate was a frustrating blip for a governor who had emphasized clean energy at a time when many Republicans had steered away from the issue. Unlike many other Western states, Nevada does not have a thriving coal or petroleum industry. If Nevada wanted to get into energy development, it had to look toward renewables.
Sandoval recognized this, several advisers said, and he viewed clean energy development as a win-win issue: something that would be good for the economy and good for the environment.
Under the Sandoval administration, Dykema said the state saw $7.8 billion in total investment, including capital, payroll and taxes, for new renewable projects. At the same time, the state issued about $861 million in tax abatements to help get renewable energy projects off their feet.
“It was more of an economic development focus,” Dykema said. “His approach to it was [that the state really needed] to embrace these emerging technologies, like distributed energy resources, electric vehicles and rooftop solar. We [needed] to be on the forefront of that and embrace them."
Sandoval, a pragmatic politician, worked across the aisle to achieve many of those goals.
One year later, Sandoval, working with Brown in California, filed a letter with federal regulators supporting the expansion of a regional Energy Imbalance Market to better integrate solar into the power grid. Thomsen, who worked for Sandoval at the time, cited the move as an example of the governor’s ability to work across party lines and broker deals with Democratic governors.
By 2017, 18 percent of the energy generated in the state came from renewables, including solar and geothermal, doubling from the amount produced when Sandoval took office in 2010. About 72 percent comes from natural gas and a sliver — only 7 percent — came from coal, according to the state’s 2017 energy status report. Nevada also benefited from its close proximity to California, with strong renewable goals, exporting new energy to users outside of the state.
Exporting energy, Dykema noted, “is still a win for Nevada.”
Most rooftop solar companies and large-scale solar developers came to Nevada from other states. When it comes to renewables, the expertise of Nevada-headquartered companies largely lies in the one renewable source that is often left out of the conversation: geothermal.
The governor’s office worked to support geothermal, which uses the Earth’s heat to produce power, in other ways too. As part of the negotiations with the Navy over an expansion of its air station in Fallon, Sandoval proposed removing wilderness-like protections to offset the impacts on geothermal development from the military’s proposed closure of about 700,000 acres of land.
This move frustrated conservationists, who have argued that it would be possible to promote geothermal without pulling back protections for about 500,000 acres of Wilderness Study Areas.
Environmentalists supported Sandoval on clean energy, but many felt he didn’t go far enough.
While Democratic governors cast their clean energy priorities under the umbrella of climate change, Sandoval avoided using the term for most of his tenure. Instead, he preferred to argue renewables were good for jump-starting the economy, noting their environmental benefits.
“He talks about it as being good for the economy,” said Brad Crowell, who currently leads the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. “In this case, being good for the economy is being good for the environment as well. That doesn’t escape him by any means.”
In a recent interview with The Nevada Independent, Sandoval said his record around energy and creating the state’s electric highway has worked to reduce the impact of climate change.
“I’ve never denied that there’s climate change, and I think what’s more important than answering whether you believe in it or not is what your actions are,” he said. “So I think that Nevada has done a lot of things with my encouragement and signing and sponsoring laws.”
Reid, in an interview, noted that Sandoval regularly participated in or helped host his annual clean energy summits in Las Vegas unless there was a conflict.
“[Climate change is] a tremendously difficult issue and it’s been my issue for a long long time, so I’ve been way out front on that and as far as I’m concerned, he never held me back from doing anything I wanted to do,” Reid said.
Andy Maggi, who runs the Nevada Conservation League, said Sandoval’s environmental record was solid but his record fell short of what it could have been after he vetoed legislation to increase the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard and community solar bill in 2017.
“For whatever reason, he was never able to go all in,” Maggi said. “So I feel like there were some missed opportunities as well. He left some things on the table that would have really solidified his legacy, not just as a governor who was good on clean energy, but a champion.”
At the time, Sandoval said he vetoed the bill to increase Nevada’s renewable energy portfolio to 40 percent by 2030 because of the uncertainty created by Question 3, the effort to strip NV Energy of its monopoly on the state’s energy supply. The ballot measure failed in November.
Without Question 3 in the mix, Dykema said “it would have been a completely different story.”
Sandoval recently told The Nevada Independent that he supports increasing the standard.
“Yes, I want there to be a more aggressive renewable portfolio standard and now the next governor, the next Legislature will have the benefit of knowing there is not going to be energy choice and they’ll have a lot less issues that are complicating that,” he said.
Gov. Brian Sandoval speaks at the opening of Ice Age Fossils State Park in Southern Nevada. (Megan Messerly/The Nevada Independent)
Managing federal land
When the governor first came to office, Drozdoff recalled a number of wildfires hitting Northern Nevada. In 2012, about 10,000 people were evacuated in Washoe County because of a fast-moving 3,000 acre fire. As a governor, Sandoval took his role as a fire manager seriously, Drozdoff said.
“He was very moved by fires early in his governorship,” Drozdoff said.
In the basins that pockmark Nevada, the increasing intensity of wildfire remains one of the most potent threats to activities that take place on the state’s public land, from grazing to hunting. But what complicates fire management for the state is the fact that more than 85 percent of land in Nevada is managed by the federal government. This was a fact Sandoval mentioned frequently, and his advisers said he encouraged his staff to work closer with their federal counterparts.
This issue resurfaced last year when Nevada saw the worst single fire in state history. In total, just two fires last year burned more than 1 million acres in Nevada, destroying grazing land for ranchers, habitat for threatened species like the sage grouse and recreation opportunities.
In September, Sandoval told reporters that the federal government could do more to help fighting fires by tilting the balance from a sole focus on fighting fires to fire prevention.
“It takes a lot of time and it takes a lot of management,” he said. “Nevada is 86 percent federal land so the federal government has a very big and important responsibility to do the right thing.”
As with any Nevada governor, the push-and-pull between the state and the federal government was one dynamic that defined Sandoval’s tenure on a laundry list of land management issues.
During his time in office, the Obama administration designated two national monuments: Gold Butte and Basin and Range. When the Basin and Range National Monument was designated, Sandoval criticized the process for bypassing Congress and excluding some stakeholders.
In part, this was due to Sandoval’s approach: to deal with the political reality as it was.
After the creation of Gold Butte, Sandoval said that once he “recognized the inevitability of this designation,” he said his focus shifted to mitigating its impact on local communities. It was also the result of his relationship with Reid and a strategy to neutralize Sandoval on the issue.
As part of the campaigns for both monuments, a coalition including former Reid staffer Megan Jones built popular support for the designations among businesses and the broader public. As the designation neared, protecting Gold Butte became a popular cause because of its proximity to the Bundy Ranch, the site of an armed standoff between scofflaw rancher Cliven Bundy and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) over Bundy’s decades-long refusal to pay grazing fees.
A monument designation became increasingly inevitable, Sandoval worked with Reid and the White House to address his concerns, such as adjusting the proposed monument boundaries to protect private land and ensure that activities like hunting and off-road recreation could occur.
"Without Senator Reid and Governor Sandoval's partnership, in some way shape or form, we would not have two monuments in the state of Nevada,” said Jones, a partner at Hilltop Public Solutions.
When the Trump administration considered reviewing the national monuments, Sandoval told the Reno Gazette Journal he supported small adjustments to Gold Butte National Monument. President Trump’s former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke recommended reductions in the size of the monument, but not to make wholesale changes, as it did in places like Utah.
"The reason we didn't see [large changes] in the final recommendations was probably due to a lot of quiet negotiations" involving the Sandoval administration, Jones said.
The Gold Butte designation, in part, also bookmarked a chapter in the Bundy saga, the state’s most recent brush with the Sagebrush Rebellion, a movement that sprung up in the 70s among Western ranchers who wanted control of federal public land placed in the hands of the state.
As the BLM began rounding up cattle at the Bundy Ranch but before the conflict escalated into an armed standoff, Sandoval, Sen. Dean Heller and several other elected officials criticized what they saw as the BLM’s excessive tactics in resolving the dispute over cattle ranching.
“No cow justifies the atmosphere of intimidation which currently exists nor the limitation of constitutional rights that are sacred to all Nevadans,” Sandoval said in a statementbefore the standoff. “The BLM needs to reconsider its approach to this matter and act accordingly.”
Patrick Donnelly, state director of the Center for Biological Diversity, said he rejected the idea that the governor was “moderate” on the environment, especially when it came to public land.
“The Sandoval administration has been a mixed bag for the environment,” he said. “But on the whole, I think he's taken several actions that are detrimental to the future of our public lands."
Donnelly cited Sandoval’s willingness to support any reductions to Gold Butte and the state’s decision to defer a Superfund listing for a former copper mine near the Yerington Paiute Tribe reservation as ways in which Sandoval set what could be slippery precedents for land policy.
Sandoval had to reckon not only with a Nevada constant — federal land ownership — but he was also forced to deal with extreme drought that sapped water resources across the state.
In 2015, Sandoval empaneled a Drought Forum that explored ways to prepare Nevada for future droughts under the strict rules of Western water law. The forum recommended changes to Nevada water law, but many of them are controversial and the legislature did not act on them in the last session. The Department of Conservation and Natural Resources has proposed bills for the upcoming legislative session. They are expected to meet pushback from a broad coalition.
“The Drought Forum and the recommendations that came out of that, I think are a real legacy for the state,” Crowell said. “I think it’s incumbent upon [the Legislature] now to help us enact some of those recommendations from the drought forum so we are actually prepared for the next drought, not just saying ‘we’re not in a drought now so we don’t have to worry about it.'”
Sandoval also chose drought as his focus during his chairmanship of the Western Governors Association, displaying what Drozdoff described as his desire to tackle issues in many venues.
Jim Ogsbury, the executive director of the association, said Sandoval approached the issue from a state-driven perspective, creating a framework for the organization's future policy work.
"He established the template and model for nearly all of the initiatives that have followed."
When Crowell, who came from the Obama administration, first took the job with Sandoval, he said he recognized that the two saw eye-to-eye on the value of the outdoors. This came through in the governor’s commitment to creating two new state parks: the Ice Age Fossils State Park and the Walker River State Recreation Area. Crowell and Drozdoff said Sandoval prided himself on his commitment to the state park system, becoming the only governor to visit all of the parks.
“It’s something he wore with pride,” Drozdoff said.
Nevada Independent reporter Michelle Rindels contributed to this report.