Two northeast Nevada counties and two mining companies this week asked a federal judge to overturn the Obama administration’s sweeping land-use plans for greater sage grouse, warning they could cripple the region’s rural economy.
The lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Nevada is the first, and likely not last, to challenge the administration’s efforts to keep the grouse off the threatened or endangered species list.
Elko and Eureka counties claim new restrictions imposed by the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service will stifle their ability to mine, graze and produce energy on federal lands that make up 72 and 81 percent of their land bases, respectively.
Western Exploration LLC and Quantum Minerals LLC say the land-use plans violate their rights under the General Mining Law of 1872 and jeopardize tens of millions of dollars invested in northeast Nevada projects.
Elko Commissioner Demar Dahl said the plans — which BLM and the U.S. Forest Service implemented to preclude an Endangered Species Act listing for the bird — will harm the counties’ three main industries: mining, grazing and recreation.
"We just had no choice but to challenge that," he said this morning. "The effect that it is going to have on them is just devastating."
Among its many charges, Elko claims travel restrictions in the plans would hamper its ability to provide police and emergency services and that grazing restrictions will allow the build-up of vegetation that will fuel more wildfires.
The plaintiffs are asking the court to enjoin both agencies from implementing land-use plans covering parts of Nevada, California, Idaho, Oregon, Montana and Utah. They’re also asking that the court block the government’s decision to temporarily withdraw about 10 million acres of public lands from new mining claims under the 1872 law.
The 64-page complaint charges the agencies with violating several laws: the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, National Forest Management Act of 1976, National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, Small Business Regulatory Enforcement Fairness Act, Administrative Procedure Act, General Mining Act of 1872 and U.S. Constitution.
In short, plaintiffs feel BLM and the Forest Service have abandoned their multiple-use missions to kowtow to the Fish and Wildlife Service, whose primary mission is to preserve wildlife.
"BLM admits that it has chosen to subordinate its multiple use and sustained yield mandate in order to influence FWS’ listing determination, which is unlawful," the complaint says.
Interior spokeswoman Jessica Kershaw said the agency cannot comment on pending lawsuits but that the plans follow the best available science and were developed in close collaboration with state and local partners.
"We believe the plans are both balanced and effective — protecting key sage grouse habitat and providing for sustainable development," she said. "We look forward to implementing them in collaboration with states and stakeholders."
Overturning the federal plans — which affect a total of 67 million acres of grouse habitat in 10 states — would throw a major wrench in the administration’s sage grouse effort. The plans were the cornerstone in FWS’s determination this week that grouse need no protections under the Endangered Species Act.
On balance, conservationists and sportsmen love the BLM and Forest Service plans, and at least four Western governors this week signaled they’re a better alternative than a federal listing for the bird.
Among them was Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval (R), who said in a statement this week he’s "cautiously optimistic that this is good news for Nevada."
"Today we reinforce the fundamental importance of a public-private partnership where federal and local stakeholders have equal platforms and participate as partners," said Sandoval, who accompanied Interior Secretary Sally Jewell at a sage grouse event Tuesday in Colorado. "I appreciate Secretary Jewell’s commitment to continue working with us and I take her at her word that we will collaborate in good faith during the next two years so that we have the opportunity to demonstrate that the Nevada plan provides the best conservation for sage-grouse in Nevada."
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (R) and Idaho Gov. Butch Otter (R) were much less pleased with the land-use plans. They both signaled that debate over the plans — in Congress and in the courts — is not over.