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Utah files lawsuit claiming feds' sage grouse conservation strategy is unlawful

Sage grouse strutting on their breeding grounds.
Sage grouse strutting on their breeding grounds.
Division of Wildlife Resources

SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Attorney General's Office filed a lawsuit Thursday against the Department of the Interior and Department of Agriculture, claiming the agencies' strategy to disallow new mining on or near greater sage grouse habitats is a breach of "numerous federal laws and regulations."

The lawsuit in U.S. District Court seeks an order voiding the federal government's land-use plan amendments submitted last year that would directly prohibit new hard rock mining on 233,300 acres in Utah.

"The state of Utah claims that the 2015 federal plan amendments disregarded the hallmark of federal land management — multiple use and sustained yield — and impose contradictory and often unnecessary restrictions on all activities in or near the habitat," Utah Attorney General's Office spokeswoman Missy Larsen said in a statement.

In April 2013, Gov. Gary Herbert introduced the state's own plan to conserve the greater sage grouse, which would focus largely on preserving the species in 13 specially designated management areas. Despite that effort to establish a conservation plan at the state level, the federal government in May 2015 unveiled a series of species protection initiatives that affected 10 Western states and amounted to an improper "overthrow" of the state plans, the attorney general's office claims.

“The Utah Attorney General’s Office and Utah’s Public Lands Policy Coordination Office were thrust into action just months ago when the Department of the Interior and Agriculture issued the mandatory management plan amendments completely disregarding land-use agreements and Utah’s sage grouse conservation historical success,” Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes said in a statement. “This unprecedented action has jeopardized conservation of the species and reasonable public use of the land in Utah.”

State government officials have said they trusted that Utah's conservation plan would prevent the greater sage grouse from being listed as an endangered species, a designation that would enact significant limits on development, grazing and other economic activities. However, the federal conservation strategy enforces many of the same economic burdens associated with an endangered species listing, Herbert said Thursday.

“The 2,000 pages of new regulations recently imposed by the federal government are in many ways more restrictive than an Endangered Species Act designation," the governor said in a statement. "This one-size-fits-all decision does not reflect the tremendous diversity in greater sage grouse habitats across the West. Today’s action by the state will allow greater flexibility in protecting this unique species while allowing reasonable economic growth in rural Utah."

Herbert said the state's efforts to protect the greater sage grouse have worked.

“As a state, Utah is better positioned to manage our sage grouse population than the federal government," he said. "Utah has adopted a strong conservation plan. … (It) has resulted in the restoration of more than 500,000 acres of sage grouse habitat and a significant growth in sage grouse populations. It is unfortunate that the federal government has decided to reject this successful plan.”

The state's lawsuit alleges that preserving the greater sage grouse has received extensive attention in Utah over the past 50 years, resulting in a slight increase in the bird's population within the state over that time. About 8 percent of the half-million or so greater sage grouse in the West reside in Utah, state officials have said.

Sens. Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee and Rep. Rob Bishop, all R-Utah, commended the lawsuit Thursday, saying the federal conservation strategy has more to do with a power struggle over land use than conservation of the greater sage grouse.

The Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service, which both fall under the parent departments named in the lawsuit by the state of Utah, 10 million total acres of Western land as off-limits to new hard rock mining as part of the federal conservation strategy introduced last year. In Utah, the new mining ban would impact federal lands in northwestern Box Elder County and northern Rich County.

National mining leaders last month criticized the proposal, calling it confirmation that President Barack Obama's federal administration is hostile to their industry. A BLM official countered, saying restrictions on such land use would protect against the future temptation to disregard the greater sage grouse in favor of mining operations because of improved extraction technology or changes in market conditions.

Federal officials have previously emphasized that rights to existing coal mining and oil and gas production, among other economic activities, would continue to be recognized under the conservation plans unveiled last year.


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