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Lawsuit Fights Special-Interest Loopholes in Greater Sage-Grouse Plans

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

DENVER - 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 fail to protect the iconic western bird from drilling, grazing and mining.

Greta Anderson, deputy director of the Western Watersheds Project, says the plans have loopholes that allow large development projects in some of the species' most important habitats.

"We're disappointed that the range-wide plans didn't adhere to the best scientific recommendations, many times from the scientists within the agencies themselves," says Anderson.

According to the lawsuit, even though plans call for protecting the bird from power transmission lines, two major projects in Colorado, by PacifiCorp and TransWest Express, got explicit exemptions.

The suit was filed in a federal district court in Idaho by the Western Watersheds Project, WildEarth Guardians and two other groups.

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

The plans cover nearly 70 million acres of public lands in 10 states administered by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service.

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.

Anderson notes scientists consider the 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.

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

Eric Galatas, Public News Service - CO