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Conservation Groups Sue for Stronger Rules to Protect Sage-Grouse

Conservation groups are suing federal agencies for better protections for the greater sage-grouse. (USFWS)
Conservation groups are suing federal agencies for better protections for the greater sage-grouse. (USFWS)
February 29, 2016

CHEYENNE, Wy. - Conservation groups are suing federal agencies for better protections for the greater sage-grouse in more than a dozen land-management plans.

The suit claims the plans have loopholes allowing drilling, grazing and mining in some of the bird's most important habitats.

Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist with WildEarth Guardians, says rules limiting oil and gas development are weakest in Wyoming, which has nearly 40 percent of the nation's remaining sage-grouse populations and the heaviest energy production.

"But in Wyoming, the future leases are going to be wide open for development, and that leaves 98 percent of the nesting habitat unprotected," says Molvar. "And it also means that even the breeding activity on the lek itself is going to be disturbed by drilling and construction activity."

The suit was filed in a federal district court by WildEarth Guardians, the Western Watersheds Project and two other groups against the U.S. Interior Department.

Suits also have been filed by mining companies, ranchers and state officials claiming the plans will block economic development.

Interior Department spokeswoman Jessica Kershaw declined to comment on the pending legislation.

Although greater sage-grouse numbers are on the rebound, according to the USDA populations have dropped from 16 million to between an estimated 200,000 and 500,000 today largely due to human activity.

Greta Anderson, policy director with the Western Watersheds Project, notes scientists consider the iconic western bird an indicator species, and calls them "canaries in the coal mine" for broader ecosystems.

"When the sage-grouse is doing poorly, it means there's a problem," says Anderson. "Which means the huge ecosystems of the Intermountain West are also in peril."

Anderson says the goal of the suit isn't to scrap plans which took years to produce, but to compel federal agencies to strengthen the rules and enforce science-based protections to keep the entire sage sea healthy for years to come.


Eric Galatas, Public News Service - WY