RENO — A federal judge put a Nevada lawsuit challenging U.S. sage grouse protections on the fast-track Wednesday but said she isn’t ready to decide in the meantime whether to temporarily suspend the regulations critics say will cripple rural economies across the West.
A Reno lawyer arguing for a temporary injunction said the new restrictions on mining and livestock grazing threaten “the economic survival” of numerous businesses, entire rural counties and “the very way of life throughout Nevada.”
“We need a time out,” Laura Granier said at the close of a two-day hearing in Reno.
Government lawyers said any court order would be premature. They say policies in a series of land planning amendments won’t affect any activities until the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management make site-specific decisions — subject to appeal — about grazing, mining and other development.
“When they are implemented, they may cause harm,” Justice Department lawyer Luther Hajek said. “But they are assuming something that hasn’t happened.”
Judge Du gave no indication when she expects to rule on the injunction. She said the opponents carry a “pretty high” burden in seeking such a “drastic remedy” as suspending the plans U.S. land managers spent four years developing in an effort to head off a federal listing of the sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act.
A trial on the merits of the case isn’t scheduled to begin at least until February. But Grazier asked Du for a “fast-track” briefing schedule on the merits of the case and the judge agreed.
An injunction would suspend the plans only in Nevada and California, but would carry ramifications for all 11 Western states with grouse habitat across tens of thousands of square miles.
Government lawyers argue interfering with the planning amendments would jeopardize the imperiled bird’s survival and could force Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to reconsider her September decision not to list it.
Grazier, who represents two mining companies, ranchers and nine Nevada counties, said the government produced inaccurate maps of grouse habitat and issued plans filled with legal flaws in a rush “to try to beat this listing decision.” She said grazing restrictions will leave excessive forage on the range and increase wildfire threats.
“I would argue that not granting the injunction will jeopardize the listing decision,” she said.
Hajek said grazing limits may increase fuel loading in the short term, but eventually lead to healthier, more resilient vegetation critical to the grouse, which has lost more than half of its native habitat and seen its numbers dwindle from more than 16 million to fewer than 500,000.
Hajek said the agencies began work on the planning amendments after the Fish and Wildlife Service initially determined in 2010 that a federal listing was warranted, in part because “existing regulatory mechanism didn’t provide sufficient regulatory certainty to protect the sage grouse.”
State and county plans to conserve grouse habitat “do something, but not enough,” said Hajek, who is based in Denver.
“They are voluntary. They don’t contain mandatory restrictions or areas excluded from activity necessary to provide certainty for the bird,” he said.
Grazier said that on the one hand the government argues the plans are needed to provide certainty the bird won’t be threatened with extinction, but on the other hand claims it’s “absolutely uncertain how it all will play out.”
“They can’t have it both ways,” she said.