Idaho sues U.S. over sage-grouse habitat restrictions

by Reuters
Saturday, 26 September 2015 04:26 GMT

By Eric M. Johnson and Steve Gorman

Sept 25 (Reuters) - Idaho filed suit on Friday challenging new federal land-use restrictions designed to safeguard the greater sage-grouse, breaking with other western states that backed sweeping measures to preserve the bird's habitat in lieu of Endangered Species Act protections.

The lawsuit, which names Republican Governor C.L. "Butch" Otter and the Republican-controlled state legislature as plaintiffs, accuses the Obama administration of a lack of transparency in devising its sage-grouse conservation strategy.

"We didn't want the (Endangered Species Act) listing, but in many ways these administrative rules are worse," Otter said in a statement accompanying the lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court in Washington.

The complaint names U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack and several top-ranking federal land managers as defendants.

Jewell, joined by a bipartisan group of governors from Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and Nevada, announced on Wednesday that the administration had decided against listing the grouse as threatened or endangered.

The need for a listing and tough land-use constraints such a move would entail had been averted by success of a less rigid set of measures worked out by state and local governments, scientists and private interests over the past five years, she said.

Supporters touted the collaboration as a milestone in efforts to save the grouse and its vanishing sagebrush habitat while allowing activities such as energy development, mining and ranching to co-exist with the chicken-sized prairie fowl.

But Otter said revisions to land-use plans for federal property constituting over half the bird's habitat were adopted without adequate analysis or proper input from state and local authorities in Idaho.

The plight of the grouse, a key indicator species for the ecosystem of the American prairie, has pitted conservation groups against oil and gas drilling, wind farms and cattle grazing in one of the biggest industry-versus-nature controversies in decades.

Known for its elaborate mating rituals, the sage-grouse once ranged by the millions across a broad expanse of the western United States and Canada. They are now believed to number between 200,000 and 500,000 birds in 11 western states and southern Alberta.

Interior Department spokeswoman Jessica Kershaw declined comment on pending litigation, but added: "We believe the plans are both balanced and effective - protecting key sage-grouse habitat and providing for sustainable development." (Reporting by Eric M. Johnson in Seattle and Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

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