Wildlife director's exit concerns conservationists

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CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) — Conservationists across the state are questioning Nevada's commitment to a plan to protect sage grouse and stave off a possible listing under the Endangered Species Act after Gov. Brian Sandoval asked the state's wildlife director to resign this week.

Many conservationists fear the forced resignation of Department of Wildlife Director Ken Mayer represents a change in scientific wildlife management by the state — a deviation that may bring disastrous consequences, said Kyle Davis, the Nevada Conservation League political and policy director.

"Certainly one of my concerns is that this will set us back to the point we aren't able to have success in preventing the listing," Davis told The Associated Press. "Given what I know right now, he's done an excellent job, and I don't see how this is the right move."

Mayer was asked to step down Wednesday after serving six years in the role. His resignation is effective Feb. 12. He declined to comment.

He is nationally known for his elite expertise in regards to the sage grouse issue, so removing him from the process only adds trouble to an already fragile plan, Davis said.

"At the very least, it sends a bad message to the federal agencies that when we're supposed to be doing everything we can to conserve the birds' habitat, the governor would essentially fire the best expert he's got in the state," Davis said.

Ted Koch, the Nevada state supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said his department was "excited" about the state's initiative to preserve the sage grouse habitat. "Last summer, the governor convened a sage grouse ecosystem council with a set of recommendations that we thought were very positive," Koch said.

At least two legislators, however, expressed concern the state's commitment to the effort may be waning. Assemblyman David Bobzien, D-Reno, and Sen. Debbie Smith, D-Sparks, said in a joint statement that the timing of Mayer's ouster was peculiar.

"Director Mayer's departure at the request of the governor right before session raises serious concerns about where wildlife fits in our state's priorities," Smith said.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is under a court mandate to determine by 2015 if the sage grouse, a chicken-sized bird, warrants protection under the Endangered Species Act. Multiple western states are working on plans to protect the species without federal intervention that state officials fear could come with heavy economic tolls.

"With impending decisions for sage-grouse, the suddenness of the Director's removal potentially sends a message to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that Nevada is less than committed to science-based conservation measures necessary to prevent a listing," Bobzien, D-Reno, said in the statement. He added there would be significant questioning during the legislative session in the wake of the dismissal.

Mary-Sarah Kinner, spokeswoman for Sandoval, said that precluding the listing of the sage grouse remains as critical for the state and as important for the governor as when he formed the Sagebrush Ecosystem Council by executive order in March 2012.

"The change in director will not affect the important work of the council as this effort continues to be a priority," Kinner said in an email to The Associated Press.

At the helm of Nevada's effort is Leo Drozdoff, director of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. He said he doesn't believe the resignation will dramatically hinder the state's chance of success, and that the issue "is a lot bigger than one person."

The state wildlife agency "is, and will continue to be integral to meeting the state's goal of preventing a listing," he said. "I don't view that we're going to have any problems."

Mayer, a wildlife biologist with more than 20 years of experience in Nevada and California, currently serves as the chairman for the National Greater Sage-grouse Executive Oversight Committee, the Bi-state Greater Sage-grouse Executive Oversight Committee and the National Executive Oversight Committee for Sage-grouse Conservation.

"They're the experts. The biologists at the Department of Wildlife are the ones who know the most about the habitat of the sage grouse and the birds themselves so I think they should take a prominent role in the conservation plan," Davis said.

John Carpenter, a former assemblyman from rural Elko County, said he and others have lobbied the governor for Mayer's ouster for a long time. Carpenter sent a letter Wednesday to Sandoval saying that getting rid of Mayer was the "only way to get into a positive mode in regard to increasing the deer herd and keeping sage grouse off the endangered list."

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