Coalition seeks court order to stop destruction of sage-grouse habitat in 7 states

WYOMING – Four conservation groups have asked a federal judge to block new plans that allow drilling, mining and other destructive activities across 51 million acres of greater sage-grouse habitat in seven western states—Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, Nevada, California and Oregon.

The motion for a preliminary injunction, filed Friday in US District Court in Boise, says the land-management plans approved by Interior Secretary David Bernhardt last month would gut protections for the birds’ dwindling populations and destroy their habitat.

“Since 2004 scientists have warned that preventing sage grouse from sliding toward extinction requires protecting all its remaining habitats and populations. The Trump administration has gone in exactly the opposite direction,” said Laird J. Lucas of Advocates for the West, lead attorney for the plaintiffs. “Interior Secretary Bernhardt is opening up key sage-grouse strongholds to energy development and other impacts, while falsely claiming this will help sage grouse. Lying about what these plan changes mean violates bedrock requirements of federal law, and we are asking the court to hold this administration accountable.”

Erik Molvar of Western Watersheds Project added, “Sage grouse are an American icon that will be irreparably harmed by the wanton destruction of sagebrush habitats that the recent amendments allow. From rolling back protections in sensitive habitats to removing habitat designations entirely, the plans could cause already fragile sage-grouse populations to disappear completely. We need to stop that.”

Bernhardt, President Trump’s nominee to replace Ryan Zinke as Interior secretary, is a former lobbyist and attorney for oil and gas, coal mining and other industries. He’s been criticized for using his position to favor those industries, including by opening millions of acres of sensitive lands to fossil fuel development.

“Bernhardt’s despicable plan is to open every last acre of sage-grouse habitat to fracking,” said Randi Spivak, public lands program director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “He’s stripping critical protections, holding fire sales of our public lands and pushing these beautiful birds to extinction. We’re asking the court to preserve sage-grouse protections until our claims can be heard.”

Friday’s motion is supported by expert declarations from sage grouse scientists, wildlife biologists and public lands enthusiasts, who urged the judge to stop the Trump administration’s plans.

“BLM essentially ignored analyzing either current habitat conditions and fragmentation or how plan changes may impact sage-grouse habitats,” said renowned wildlife biologist Clint Braun, who spent 30 years with the Colorado Division of Wildlife, including as its avian program manager. The revisions “are contrary to the best available science and will allow significant adverse impacts to sage-grouse populations and habitats that BLM has failed to acknowledge and has misrepresented in its decision documents.”

In March the conservation groups sued Bernhardt and the Bureau of Land Management over the new land-use plans, which rescinded or weakened 2015 plans on BLM land in the seven states with most of the remaining sage-grouse population. That complaint supplemented a 2016 lawsuit arguing that those earlier plans?intended to avoid Endangered Species Act listing—didn’t go far enough to protect the grouse.

Greater sage grouse once occupied hundreds of millions of acres across the West, but their populations have plummeted as oil and gas development, livestock grazing, roads, powerlines and other activities have destroyed and fragmented their native habitats.

Western Watersheds Project, the Center for Biological Diversity, WildEarth Guardians and Prairie Hills Audubon Society are represented by Advocates for the West, a nonprofit, public-interest law firm based in Boise.

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