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Interior Pick Moves Forward After Sage Grouse Dispute

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s schedule went temporarily afoul of a rather unattractive fowl.

The Nevada Democrat eventually got an agreement to hold an afternoon confirmation vote on President Barack Obama’s choice of Sally Jewell to be the next Interior secretary Wednesday evening. But not until Reid’s plans ran into an ongoing dispute between Sen. James E. Risch, R-Idaho, and the Fish and Wildlife Service over the possibility that the sage grouse could be listed as an endangered species.

“Secretary Salazar has been working very closely with the Idaho Governor’s office and a broad coalition of stakeholders in putting together a science-based solution to sage grouse management,” Risch said in a statement to CQ Roll Call issued before Reid secured the time agreement for a vote.

“I am pleased that Sally Jewell wants to continue with the collaborative approach to issues such as this, however, on the sage grouse issue we are not quite there,” Risch added. A Risch aide confirmed that the senator previously had indicated he would not grant consent to turn to the nomination of Jewell, the REI CEO nominated by Obama to succeed former Sen. Ken Salazar as Interior secretary.

But by the afternoon, Risch seemed to have gotten what he wanted. “Sen. Risch received assurance that the collaborative process Idaho has embarked upon to keep sage grouse off the endangered species list is supported by the Department of Interior,” his aide said.

Risch’s concerns came as no surprise given that he previewed the move during the Energy and Natural Resources Committees markup of the nomination.

“I want everyone to understand I reserve the right to vote no” when Jewell’s nomination reaches the Senate floor, Risch said at the time. “More importantly, I reserve the right to place a hold when the nomination gets to the floor if indeed I don’t see the continued progress on this particular issue.”

A Senate nomination getting tied up in a parochial issue is nothing new. Senators often view the confirmation process as the only leverage they might have to get some sort of local issue addressed.

While a final determination about the sage grouse’s status is not expected until 2015, Republican lawmakers already have been vocal about it. Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., secured adoption of an amendment to the fiscal 2014 budget resolution signaling Senate support for the Interior Department to work with ranchers and other Western stakeholders on the sage grouse issue. The bird generated so much attention in Nevada that it repeatedly came up as an issue in the 2012 Senate campaign between Heller and his Democratic challenger, then-Rep. Shelley Berkley.

“A listing of the sage-grouse as an endangered species would have a devastating impact on Nevada’s economy. Collaboration among the states, the federal government and other stakeholders will go a long way towards protecting Nevadans’ way of life as well as ensuring a sustainable sage-grouse population,” Heller said in a statement issued in the midst of the Senate’s all-night budget debate.

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