Environmentalists sue over latest sage grouse plans

U.S. Bureau of Land Management photo shows a sage grouse on its mating grounds. Bob Wick/BLM

Wednesday saw another chapter added to the acrimonious saga of the sage grouse as a coalition of environmental groups filed suit in Idaho over recent amendments to land use plans in seven western states.

Western Watersheds Project, the Center for Biological Diversity and other environmental advocacy groups sued Acting Secretary David Bernhardt, the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service in federal court, claiming the agencies violated federal laws and ignored science when they relaxed Obama-era protections.

“The Trump administration is gutting sage-grouse protections on at least 50 million acres of public lands without admitting what they’re doing,” Laird J. Lucas, lead attorney for the plaintiffs with Advocates for the West, said in a statement.

Specifically, the environmentalists call the amendments a thinly veiled giveaway to natural resource extraction industries, developers, mining corporations and livestock grazers.

“The Trump Administration falsely asserts that these actions build upon and improve the 2015 Plans,” the groups say in the 50-page complaint. “In truth, they universally decrease protections for the greater sage grouse … and will hasten the greater sage-grouse’s decline toward extinction.”

Earlier this month, the Bureau of Land Management announced that it revised the land use plans finalized in 2015 after years of fractious debate that resulted in a fragile compromise.

The greater sage grouse, a bird endemic to a wide swath of the sagebrush country spanning much of the American West, has long been at the center of a fight between developers, livestock managers, mining enterprises and energy development companies on one side and environmentalists and wildlife advocates on the other.

The Trump administration argued the deal forged under the guidance of former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell put too much power in the hands of the federal government and did not allow the states recourse to adaptive strategies that would balance the needs of the bird and the vitality of local economies.

Environmentalists say that rhetoric is nonsense and that the Trump administration is more intent on forwarding its “energy dominance” agenda on public lands at the expense of the environment and wildlife.

“Trump and his oil-industry buddies have declared open season on the vanishing sage grouse and the West’s remaining sagebrush landscapes,” Michael Saul, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement Wednesday.

The Bureau of Land Management told Courthouse News it would not comment on pending litigation. The U.S. Department of Justice has yet to respond to an email inquiry seeking comment.

Scientists estimate only 200,000 to 500,000 greater sage grouse, which once roamed the western sagebrush landscape by the millions, remain.

The bird uses sagebrush-grassland or juniper sagebrush-grassland, which proliferates at lower elevations throughout roughly 300 million acres of the American West, as a vital feeding ground. Scientists say residential development, natural resource extraction and cattle grazing in the bird’s natural habitat have led to its precipitous population decline in recent decades.

Although environmental groups petitioned the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife to list the bird as endangered, advocates for the economic interests dependent on the land said such a listing would cripple several industries – much like the listing of the northern spotted owl as endangered hobbled the timber industry in the West.

Former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell led a five-year effort culminating in a compromise seeking to provide sage grouse protections while stopping short of listing it as endangered – a deal all affected states and interested parties signed off on.

Within weeks of President Donald Trump’s inauguration, however, his administration said it would revisit the deal.

Initially, the Trump administration’s desire to revisit the compromise provoked skepticism from most of the governors of the affected states, who balked at undoing a fragile agreement that required years of effort.

But the recent land use amendments were generally well received, with Democratic governors from Oregon and Colorado endorsing the newly minted plans along with Republican governors from Utah, Nevada and Wyoming.

Only California Governor Gavin Newsom has yet to comment on the agreement.