Protecting sagebrush ecosystems in Nevada

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Land-based ecosystems and the services they provide support 40 percent of the world's economy and 80 percent of the needs of the poor. Forests cover 30 percent of the Earth and are essential to combating climate change, protecting biodiversity and ensuring food security (especially for indigenous forest peoples). Since 1970 there has been a 52 percent reduction of wildlife populations and of the 8,300 known animal species, 8 percent are already extinct and 22 percent are at risk of extinction.  All ICMM members implement the 10 principles that underpin our Sustainable Development Framework. Principle 7 requires companies to contribute to biodiversity conservation and integrated approaches to land-use planning.

When the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) officially came into force in January 2016, the nations of the world committed to mobilise efforts to end poverty, fight inequalities and tackle climate change. Business has a significant part to play, alongside governments and civil society, in creating pathways for a greener, safer and sustainable future for us all. Metals and minerals are essential to almost all aspects of everyday life; they enable farming, healthcare, communications, construction, transport and energy and water supply. And they will arguably become more important as they help to deliver the infrastructure required for a low-carbon future. This is one of a series of case studies gathered from our members to highlight how companies are working to enhance their contribution to society and help industry to manage potential adverse impacts their activities may have on the realisation of some of the SDGs.

Wet meadow ecosystems and other sagebrush-supporting areas provide critical habitat to many important species including a native bird called the sage-grouse. These habitats are generally in decline across Nevada. Scientists estimate the sage-grouse population is less than half what it was in the early 19th century when it inhabited an estimated 450,000 square miles of sagebrush across the West.

Growing threats to the sage-grouse’s nesting grounds include wildfires, invasive plants, and loss and fragmentation of habitat. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been considering whether or not to protect the greater sage- grouse under the Endangered Species Act. Such a listing would affect mining and energy projects. 

In response to the habitat decline and the potential listing of the sage-grouse, a partnership has been developed between Barrick Gold and the US government to manage 320,000 acres of land in ways that protect the habitat for the sage-grouse, using metrics developed by The Nature Conservancy.

The sage-grouse partnership

Through this partnership, a ‘conservation bank’ has been established, providing Barrick with credit for enhancing critical habitat, in exchange for more flexibility in planning future operations. The Nature Conservancy is providing scientific support to the partnership, which will use the Conservancy’s Conservation Forecasting Tools to enable compensation for significant residual impacts of future mining activities.

It aims to preserve and restore more habitat than is lost through development, while at the same time providing Barrick with more certainty as it maps out new mining plans.

Measures include innovative grazing management techniques and restoration of native plants on Barrick properties impacted by fire and invasive species (see box for an example). Barrick already has many years of experience managing Nevada lands to benefit sage-grouse, and has developed considerable expertise related to sagebrush ecosystem conservation. Similar management efforts already are underway on a much smaller scale involving private ranching operations in Oregon and Wyoming.

The work in Nevada will be conducted over roughly three years, and will involve an expert process for creating management alternatives, including participation of federal and state agencies.  Much of the bird’s critical habitat in Nevada is on private lands, so this proactive partnership approach offers a meaningful way that its habitat can be protected and enhanced.

Outcomes

This project strikes a good balance between ecological and economic interests. It provides Barrick with the longer-term security necessary to sustain its investment. At the same time, it provides a measure of protection to a potentially threatened bird that would be difficult to achieve without Barrick’s forward-looking involvement as landowner.

ICMM members supporting the SDGs