RENO — A federal judge in Nevada could rule any time now on a lawsuit filed nearly a year ago in an effort to block protections of the greater sage grouse across much of the West.
Nevada’s attorney general, nine counties, ranchers and mining companies filed their final briefs in Reno Wednesday challenging land use planning amendments and a temporary freeze on new mining claims the government has adopted to guide future management of lands where the imperiled bird lives.
The two sides continue to argue over the most basic point — whether U.S. District Judge Miranda Du even has any authority at this time to strike down the new policies Interior Secretary Sally Jewell unveiled just days after she decided in September the grouse doesn’t need protection under the Endangered Species Act.
Opponents claim she does. They say they’re being harmed by the planning amendments and 2-year mining withdrawal that they say are having a chilling effect on mining and energy exploration, as well as the ability of livestock ranchers and entire county governments to plan for the future.
Government lawyers argue any such challenge is premature. They say the policies offer guidelines but no specific decisions on individual grazing, mining or other federal permits.
Not until those site-specific decisions are made can anyone file an administrative appeal or bring a lawsuit in federal court, the government maintains.
Du denied the plaintiffs’ request for a temporary injunction in December, ruling that the critics’ claims raise “only the possibility — not a likelihood — of irreparable harm.”
The land use planning amendments at issue apply specifically to Nevada, Idaho, Oregon, Utah, northeast California and southwest Montana, but they carry ramifications for all 11 western states that are home to the imperiled bird.
“Along with a majority of Nevada counties, my office has been pushing back against the federal government’s overreaching sage grouse land plan for almost a year,” Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt said.
“As our latest brief again demonstrates, the Bureau of Land Management’s rushed, one-size-fits-all sage grouse plan not only violates multiple federal laws, but also the agency’s own regulations,” he said.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined in 2010 that protection of the bird under the Endangered Species Act was warranted, but that a listing was precluded due to other priorities. Jewell reversed that decision in September, based on her conclusion that a 2 year effort to strengthen the protections through a series of land management plans provides enough certainty that the bird won’t go extinct even though its numbers once totaling an estimated 16 million have dwindled to as few as 200,000.
Environmentalists who have been granted intervenor status in the case back the government’s position that the grouse likely will have to be listed under the act if the plans are struck down.
“The only reason sage grouse are not now proposed for listing as threatened or endangered under the ESA is because of the plans challenged by the plaintiffs,” wrote lawyers for The Wilderness Society, National Wildlife Federation and Earthworks.