Lawsuits Will Be Next Battle In Sage Grouse Conservation Saga

Sep 23, 2015
Originally published on September 23, 2015 12:06 pm
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The greater sage grouse, a dramatic looking brown bird found in the American West, will not be added to the endangered species list. That decision by the Fish and Wildlife Service is being celebrated by many western states and industries. They are worried that listing the prairie bird with its extensive range could cost them billions of dollars in economic activity. But as NPR's Nathan Rott reports, legal challenges to that decision are building.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Before we look for it, let's go back real quick. We're in the Upper Green River Valley in central Wyoming on a treeless bluff. The hot July sun is melting what little snow remains on the Wind River Mountain Range, feeding the meandering Green River on the valley floor below.

LEAH YANDOW: OK. Let's do our sage brush cover measurements.

ROTT: We're here with four field biologists from the U.S. Forest Service, who are documenting the types and amounts of vegetation they see at this site. Leah Yandow is the crew lead.

YANDOW: So I'm going to say that's about 30 percent that's all covered with buckwheat.

ROTT: It's not the most exciting work in the world, no, but Christopher Wehrli, the acting ranger for this Forest Service district, says it's necessary for a couple of reasons. First, to make sure they have all the pertinent data and science about sage grouse in this area.

CHRISTOPHER WEHRLI: So we're making an informed decision. We know what we're doing out there.

ROTT: The second reason...

WEHRLI: So that we can support it ourselves in litigation.

ROTT: Litigation - lawsuits. Ask anyone involved with the greater sage grouse decision before yesterday's announcement or after, and they'll tell you it's not a matter of if but when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service gets sued for their decision to keep the bird off the endangered species list. Ken Mayer is the former head of California Fish and Game. Now he's with the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.

KEN MAYER: As a government person, you're kind of, like, with this big catcher's mitt. You don't know which way the ball's coming.

ROTT: But you kind of know it's coming.

MAYER: But you know it's coming and, you know, some of them hurt (laughter).

ROTT: In the case of the greater sage grouse, the most likely target of those lawsuits looks to be massive land use management plans. Those plans also announced yesterday lay out strategies for better protecting sage grouse on Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service land, where the majority of the birds live. So they're where the lawsuits will likely start.

ERIK MOLVAR: The federal plans fall well short of what the science says sage grouse need to survive.

ROTT: Erik Molvar is with Wild Earth Guardians, an environmental group. Kathleen Sgamma is with the Western Energy Alliance, which represents oil and gas companies.

KATHLEEN SGAMMA: Science does not support these extreme draconian restrictions in the land use plans.

ROTT: So for one side, the plans are too lax and allow too much development; for the other, they're too restrictive and don't allow enough. Both sides say they need to review the plans in detail before making a decision about what to do next. But they both say the land use plans are final.

SGAMMA: So the only course left would be legal action.

ROTT: But legal action won't be the only challenge to the Department of Interior's plans. There's also Congress. Republican Rob Bishop from Utah says the land use of plans are a power grab by the federal government. He also chairs the House Resources Committee.

ROB BISHOP: I'm going to use whatever tools I have at my disposal to overturn the regulatory power of these agencies.

ROTT: Those tools, he admits, are limited, so the focus now is on the courts and challenges to the Department of Interior's decision, the next battle over the fate of the sage grouse and development in the West. Nathan Rott, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.