The extended legal battle over greater sage-grouse entered what might be a critical phase last week as a federal judge heard a case in Idaho, the outcome of which could have major implications for management of livestock grazing on many millions of acres throughout the West.
The geographic scope of the case, which includes public lands in Idaho, Nevada, California, Utah, Wyoming, and Montana, makes it one of the largest environmental lawsuits in U.S. history.
Even so, Idaho District court Judge B. Lynn Winmill’s decision could be more dependent on procedural considerations than on adjudication of the actual issues.
Just as briefs for the current case were being filed, BLM announced a new management plan to better protect sage-grouse. WWP lawyers will argue that the case must be determined on its merits rather than analyzing BLM’s new plans.
Earlier in July, Judge Winmill rejected a request by the Interior Department to suspend the case, which has been brought by the conservation group, Western Watershed Project (WWP). The federal government wanted to wait until a similar lawsuit is settled with two other wildlife advocacy organizations. At issue is whether the bird will be listed under the Endangered Species Act, a decision the Obama administration intends to delay until 2015.
Judge Winmill decided the WWP case could continue, because it concerns the question of whether more immediate measures are needed to protect the iconic species and its sagebrush habitat.
On the other hand, Winmill decided on July 22 to overturn his March suspension of grazing in sagebrush country around Jarbidge, Nevada, just over Idaho’s southern border. He wrote in his order that experts agreed the decline of sage-grouse in that area was “due largely to the destruction of habitat by wildfire.”
Curbs on cattle grazing in sage-grouse nesting areas, especially in spring, are a prime consideration, but not the only one. Oil and gas development, fencing, and related issues also are part of the debate over how best to conserve sagebrush habitat in the West.
“We’re dealing with the issues of grazing, energy, and how do you protect biodiversity in the face of these human threats,” said Laird Lucas of Advocates for the West, who are representing WWP.
“We will build consistent conservation measures into land-use planning efforts, including those already underway where sage-grouse are located,” BLM director Robert Abbey said in a press release last week.
The agency announced its intention to incorporate science-based conservation measures into Resource Management Plans across regions where the greater sage-grouse is found.
In 2005, BLM lost a federal case concerning sage-grouse and grazing on the grounds that the agency had paid insufficient attention to scientific evidence.
The WWP lawsuit, which began in December of 2008, concerns 18 Resource Management Plans across the West, all of which were adopted by BLM in the last two years of the George W. Bush administration.
Two of them, in Pinedale, Wyoming and at Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho, are the focus of the current litigation, as court-designated “test cases.”
The Pinedale allotment contains more than 700,000 acres of federal oil and gas leases administered by BLM. The lava fields in Craters of the Moon include about 500 kipukas, or islands of old terrain surrounded by newer lava, many of which contain sagebrush steppe communities.
Judge Winmill acknowledged in court last week that the case is complex. A source close to the case anticipates a decision within perhaps two months.