A coalition of environmental groups has filed a federal lawsuit challenging the Obama administration’s sweeping greater sage grouse conservation plans across the West, claiming they are riddled with loopholes, scientific flaws and "political compromises" and won’t protect the bird or its habitat.
The Interior Department released a statement today defending the plans and pledging to continue implementing them with state and local partners.
The lawsuit, filed today in the U.S. District Court for the District of Idaho, does not ask the court to throw out the plans that amended 98 federal land-use plans in 10 states to incorporate grouse protections.
Instead, the four groups are asking in the 107-page complaint that the court remand the plans to the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service to strengthen protections and close loopholes that they say allow livestock grazing, oil and gas drilling, transmission lines and other development through sensitive grouse habitat.
"This lawsuit is designed to strengthen sage grouse protections to at least meet minimum requirements needed to maintain or recover populations on key habitats," said Nancy Hilding, president of the Prairie Hills Audubon Society in South Dakota.
The lawsuit — which names as defendants BLM, the Forest Service and Assistant Interior Secretary Janice Schneider — is the first filed by conservation groups against the federal sage grouse plans. The four plaintiffs are the Western Watersheds Project, WildEarth Guardians, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Prairie Hills Audubon Society. Attorneys with Advocates for the West are representing the groups in the lawsuit.
But it’s the latest legal challenge of the plans, which were finalized last fall and hailed by Interior Secretary Sally Jewell as "historic." The plans, which took years to develop, are generally acknowledged as among the most ambitious and complex conservation initiatives ever undertaken by Interior and the Agriculture Department, spanning nearly 70 million acres of grouse habitat across the Rocky Mountain and Great Basin regions.
The state of Utah this month filed a lawsuit claiming that the plans "violate numerous federal laws and regulations" and asked the court to "permanently enjoin" Interior and the Agriculture Department from implementing the plans on BLM and Forest Service lands (Greenwire, Feb. 5).
The state of Idaho and a collection of Nevada counties and mining companies in the Silver State, as well as the ranching industry in Wyoming, last year filed lawsuits challenging the plans. Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt (R) joined the counties and mining companies in the case.
But while those government and industry lawsuits seek to remove the grouse conservation measures entirely, the conservation groups acknowledge that the plans "do improve sage-grouse conservation measures within the affected federal lands." They want BLM and the Forest Service to undertake a "comprehensive and legally valid" supplemental analysis and revise the plans "in order to cure the legal violations and defects found by the Court and to adopt scientifically adequate sage-grouse conservation measures," the complaint says.
Specifically, the complaint cites what it calls insufficient protections from oil and gas development in Wyoming, which the groups say has the heaviest drilling in the planning area and most of the remaining greater sage grouse in the West.
"All the plans — but especially Wyoming’s — are riddled with exceptions and loopholes for fluid mineral and energy development," the complaint says. "The plans will thus allow further loss and fragmentation of sage-grouse habitats, and contribute to further population declines, most notably in the Powder River Basin where the viability of sage-grouse populations is already jeopardized."
The grouse plans "also fail to analyze or protect sage-grouse from impacts of climate change — a stunning omission, given that the National Planning Strategy was intended to ensure the species’ long-term survival, and climate change poses major threats to sage-grouse survival."
The groups also say the plans exempt some proposed multistate transmission line projects "despite their adverse impacts in fragmenting sage-grouse priority habitats." These projects include Rocky Mountain Power’s Energy Gateway South and Gateway West projects, which cover portions of Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and Idaho, and Anschutz Corp.’s TransWest Express project extending into parts of Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and Nevada.
Overall, the complaint says, Interior ignored the best available science, including an influential 2011 grouse management report by BLM’s National Technical Team of sage grouse experts, and a Fish and Wildlife Service-commissioned report in 2013 by a conservation objectives team that outlined rangewide sage grouse protection goals.
"Federal agencies turned their backs on the habitat protections recommended by their own scientists, and instead adopted political compromises that can’t — and won’t — prevent further sage grouse declines," said Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist with WildEarth Guardians.
The groups say BLM must go back and make the plans consistent across the nearly 70 million acres of grouse habitat. The complaint says Interior erred in "fragmenting" the grouse conservation strategy into 15 separate parts, each evaluated with its own environmental impact statement (EIS) that took years to complete.
The complaint challenges the 14 environmental impact statements Interior approved in September on the same day Fish and Wildlife announced its decision not to list the bird for protection under the Endangered Species Act. The complaint also targets the EIS and plan amendments for BLM’s Lander Field Office in central Wyoming that were finalized in 2013.
Molvar described the sage grouse plans as "a crazy-quilt of weak protections and politically motivated loopholes."
Jessica Kershaw, Interior’s press secretary, said the agency could not comment specifically on the lawsuit filed today.
But in an emailed statement, Kershaw said the federal plans "follow the best available science and were developed collaboratively with state and local partners."
She added, "We believe the plans are both balanced and effective — protecting key sage-grouse habitat and providing for sustainable development."
The plans established primary habitat management areas and general habitat management areas where new oil and gas drilling, some large transmission line projects, and livestock grazing would be prevented or limited. The goal, Interior has said, is to focus conservation measures in specific areas that are most important to the sage grouse, while still allowing oil and gas and renewables development.
Kershaw’s statement also noted that Fish and Wildlife credited the national sage grouse conservation strategy as a key factor in its decision last September not to list the bird for protection under the Endangered Species Act. Local government leaders, industry officials and landowners worried for years that an ESA listing would cripple economies across the West.
Interior officials have cautioned that legal actions undermining implementation of the plans could result in the Fish and Wildlife Service being forced to reconsider its September decision not to list the bird for protection.
Sarah Greenberger, Jewell’s top counselor, last fall compared potential lawsuits challenging the federal plans to the game Jenga, in which players carefully remove pieces from a tower of blocks until they fall. Remove the federal plans, she said, and the structure collapses.
"If people want to play that game of knocking out pieces and pulling this all down, that’s disappointing and we think counterproductive," Greenberger said (Greenwire, Sept. 22, 2015).
But Molvar and other conservation leaders complained shortly after the plans were finalized that they were flawed and inadequate, particularly relating to industrial development, livestock grazing and stopping the spread of invasive weeds.
Still, the latest legal complaint acknowledges the groundbreaking nature of the overall effort.
"While the scope of this National Greater Sage-Grouse Planning Strategy is impressively large, and the new federal plans represent an important step forward for sage-grouse conservation, the 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," the complaint says.
Doing more will help the sage grouse avoid declines, but also help address broader land health problems that threaten up to 350 species of native wildlife that call the sagebrush-steppe ecosystem home, the groups say.
"This issue is about far more than one Western bird," said Randi Spivak, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s public lands program. "If these plans can be strengthened to meet the scientifically established minimums in habitat protection, we can safeguard the health of the Sagebrush Sea as a whole — and all of the native wildlife, open space and recreational values that are valued by and benefit so many people."