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Idaho Mountain Express, March 3, 2016

Groups sue over sage grouse plan

Conservationists claim ‘subregional’ plans don’t address big picture


Four conservation organizations, including the Hailey-based Western Watersheds Project, have filed a lawsuit in federal court asking for a more comprehensive plan to protect sage grouse across the West, and for more concrete steps to prevent habitat loss.

    The groups, which also include WildEarth Guardians, Center for Biological Diversity and Prairie Hills Audubon Society in South Dakota, filed the suit Feb. 25 in U.S. District Court in Idaho.

    The suit challenges a National Greater Sage-Grouse Planning Strategy finalized in September by the BLM and U.S. Forest Service in conjunction with a decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to not list sage grouse as an endangered species. The strategy is based on 15 “subregional” plans covering more than 100,000 square miles in Idaho and nine other states.

    A draft plan for Idaho and southwestern Montana, released in November 2013, states that 51 percent of sagebrush landscape in that area is on BLM land, including 1.1 million acres of “priority” sage grouse habitat managed by the agency’s Shoshone Field Office. Ten percent of the area’s sagebrush habitat is on national forests.    

    The final BLM and Forest Service plans were supported by the governors of Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and Nevada. However, immediately after the final plans were released, they were challenged in court by Idaho Gov. Butch Otter and the Idaho Legislature. The suit contended that the federal government had amended the draft plans without carrying out the planning process in a transparent manner and hadn’t analyzed the effects of newly ordered land-use restrictions. The suit asked that the federal agencies be required to complete supplemental plans to address those alleged deficiencies.

    At that time, the leaders of organizations involved in sage grouse conservation said they, too, were studying the legality of the government’s plans.

    The 107-page complaint filed last week on behalf of the four organizations by Boise-based environmental law firm Advocates for the West objects to the fragmentation of the conservation strategy into 15 regions without any “big picture” analysis of how to protect sage grouse across its range.

    “[T]he plans fail to implement the best available science and the government’s own expert recommendations—and thus will not ensure the survival of greater sage-grouse into the foreseeable future, in which the synergistic impacts of climate change and human activities threaten to further reduce and fragment sage-grouse habitats and continue the species’ population decline,” the lawsuit states.

    The complaint alleges that protections against surface disturbance in sage-grouse habitat differ across adjacent states, and even within the same state, and common threats are treated differently in the various EISs.

    “Defendants failed to adopt consistent, enforceable, science-based conservation measures needed to redress major threats to sage-grouse, notably impacts from energy and mineral development, infrastructure and livestock grazing,” the complaint states.

    The groups claim that the plans violate the National Environmental Policy Act, the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, and the National Forest Management Act.

    Despite their objections, the plaintiffs called the National Greater Sage-Grouse Planning Strategy “a substantial step forward for sage-grouse conservation,” especially since it identifies priority habitats deserving full protection. Consequently, the groups said they aren’t asking the court to set aside the plans. Rather, they’re requesting that it order the federal agencies to issue revised land-use plans that adopt “consistent, science-based conservation measures needed to ensure survival and recovery of the greater sage-grouse across its range into the future.”

    The conservation groups have successfully sued the federal agencies several times over the past few years, and their legal efforts contributed toward creation of the National Greater Sage-Grouse Planning Strategy.

    The state of Idaho’s suit is awaiting a ruling on a motion for summary judgment filed last week, asking for a preliminary injunction staying the BLM and Forest Service plans while the suit progresses. Cally Younger, the governor’s legal counsel, said she expects the federal government to file a motion for summary judgment of its own, and for oral arguments on both motions to be heard in May or June.




© Copyright 2016, Idaho Mountain Express Newspaper

This article originally appeared here.

Jeffrey pine photo by John Villinski.