By Thomas Mitchell
A federal judge in Idaho has pulled the rug out from under the Western states that had worked with the federal public land agencies to create separate plans to preserve sage grouse habitat and yet still allow fruitful economic activity such as mining, oil and gas exploration, farming and grazing.
U.S. District Court Judge B. Lynn Winmill granted an injunction blocking those plans in a lawsuit brought by several self-styled environmental groups. The judge agreed that the Bureau of Land Management plans announced this past spring failed to make a one-size-fits all, range-wide analysis, failed to evaluate climate change and removed protections for the birds unjustified by science and conditions on the ground. Never mind that the colorful fowl best known for its strutting mating ritual has never been added to the Endangered Species list, though its population in recent years has declined from millions to about half a million.
The suit — brought by the Western Watersheds Project, the Wildearth Guardians, Center for Biological Diversity and the Prairie Hills Audubon Society — opposed the regionalized plans for grouse protection in Nevada, Colorado, Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, Oregon and California.
The state-by-state plans announced in March backed off Obama administration plans that would have largely blocked most economic activity near grouse habitat.
“The State of Nevada thanks the Bureau of Land Management for incorporating our concerns and respecting the Greater Sage-Grouse habitat plan developed cooperatively by Nevada state agencies and local stakeholders,” Nevada’s Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak was quoted as saying at the time in a statement conveyed by the BLM. “In particular, Nevada appreciates the BLM’s commitment to compensatory mitigation as an integral part of the success of Nevada’s habitat
management plan. We look forward to working closely with the BLM Nevada Office and the Department of Interior leadership to ensure the revised habitat plans are fully successful.”
A year earlier, as the Nevada Plan was being finalized then-Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval also praised the cooperation the state was getting from the Trump administration land agencies. “I look forward to reviewing the draft Environmental Impact Statement and I trust that the Department of the Interior will continue to engage with and value the opinions of the impacted western governors,” Sandoval was quoted as saying. “I am confident we can find success by working together.”
Nevada’s Republican Sen. Dean Heller and Republican Congressman Mark Amodei also thanked the Interior Department for respecting the work of Nevada stakeholders.
But the judge has prevented those regional plans from being used. Courthouse News quoted an attorney representing the plaintiffs as saying of the ruling, “The Bureau of Land Management deliberately undermined protections for the sage grouse, then had the audacity to claim these rollbacks would not impact the species. The law demands more. This injunction is critical to protecting the sagebrush steppe and this icon of the American West.”
What most people forget is that this icon of the American West never was seen by early explorers of the American West in the 1820s and 1830s, nor by the first wagon trains in the 1840s. Not until settlers brought in horses, cattle, oxen and sheep, which fertilized the soil and ground the vegetation into the ground, while ranchers also improved water sources, did the sage grouse population grow into the millions. Human activity actually caused the birds to thrive. Fires and the lack of predator control have caused the grouse population to dwindle somewhat, not mining, exploration, grazing and farming.
Local common sense management of the lands — not one-size-fits-none central planning — will preserve the sage grouse and jobs.
Thomas Mitchell is a former newspaper editor who now writes conservative/libertarian columns for weekly papers in Nevada. You may email Mitchell at email@example.com. He blogs at http://4thst8.wordpress.com/.