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Groups halt lawsuit over Gunnison sage grouse

SALT LAKE CITY — A coalition of conservation groups said it reached an agreement with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service over the recovery of the threatened Gunnison sage grouse, a move which puts on hold a lawsuit against the agency.

The species is found in Colorado and southeastern Utah and is on the endangered species list.

Ryan Shannon, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, said the agreement ensures the bird will get a recovery plan before it is too late.

"This critically imperiled species has really suffered as its habitat has been lost to oil and gas drilling, urban sprawl and overgrazing. A robust recovery plan is a good first step toward preventing the grouse’s extinction," Shannon said.

The groups sued to have the bird classified as endangered rather than threatened, but the new agreement stays that legal action and instead requires the federal agency to come up with a recovery plan within 30 months.

Signed in late April, the agreement had the nod from the states of Colorado and Utah, as well as San Juan County.

The plan requires details of threats to the species and site-specific management plans to either eliminate or mitigate those threats. It also requires monitoring to ensure recovery goals are met.

The grouse is limited to a relatively small area of southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah.

According to the coalition, a history of habitat loss and fragmentation has left the Gunnison sage grouse to dwindle to seven isolated populations, with a total of approximately 4,000 birds as of spring 2017. It says six of those populations are in decline.

The groups that brought the lawsuit are the Western Watersheds Project, the Center for Biological Diversity, WildEarth Guardians and Advocates of the West.

In other action, three of those groups filed a new lawsuit Monday challenging the Trump administration over practices they say are gutting protections for the greater sage grouse on more than 2 million acres of the bird's prime habitat.

The suit filed in U.S. District Court in Boise asserts the Bureau of Land Management acted outside federal law in its approval of oil and gas lease sales in multiple Western states, including Utah.

"Sensitive wildlife, like the iconic sage grouse, face irreparable harm. We are asking the federal court to enforce the laws on the books and protect our magnificent public lands from these unlawful actions," said Laird Lucas of Advocates for the West, lead attorney on the case.

The lawsuit, filed by Western Watersheds Project, the Center for Biological Diversity and Advocates for the West, asserts the U.S. Department of Interior is illegally prioritizing oil and gas development over the protection of the bird's habitat.

Under land use plans adopted in 2015, the groups say the federal government is obligated to focus its oil and gas leases outside of sage grouse habitat. Those plans are intended to prevent the bird’s decline and preclude its protection under the Endangered Species Act, but the groups say a BLM directive effectively eliminated those sage-grouse agreements.

The state of Utah filed a lawsuit two years ago against the federal government, objecting to the 2015 plans because it said they imposed unnecessary restrictions.