Battle over sage grouse in Nevada heads to federal court

CARSON CITY — The showdown over sage grouse in Nevada heads to a federal courtroom, where lawyers for the attorney general’s office and rural interests will ask a judge to block federal land-use restrictions intended to protect the bird and its habitat.

Justice Department lawyers counter that granting an injunction could prompt the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to reconsider its decision not to list the chicken-sized bird under the Endangered Species Act. States have been working for years to prevent a listing.

U.S. District Judge Miranda Du will consider a motion for an injunction at a 9 a.m. hearing Tuesday in Reno.

Elko and Eureka counties and two small mining firms filed the lawsuit in September, the day after Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced a decision not to list the bird found in 11 Western states. Since then, state Attorney General Adam Laxalt, over the objections of Gov. Brian Sandoval, joined the suit against federal land agencies, as did seven other Nevada counties, another mining company and a rancher.

Sandoval has said he has not ruled out litigation, but believes the suit will have a chilling effect on ongoing discussions with the Interior Department over his concerns about the land-use plans.

Laxalt said the lawsuit is necessary to protect Nevada’s interests, arguing the federal government’s “one-size-fits-all sage grouse plan” will hinder growth.

The suit argues adoption of the amended land-use regulations was done without proper procedure and would be just as onerous as if the sage grouse were given protection under the Endangered Species Act.

The lawsuit claims the rules impose new restrictions on more than 20 million acres of public lands in Nevada and prohibits new mining claims on 3 million acres for at least three years.

Elko County alone stands to lose $31 million annually in agriculture, mining and energy development activity, according to the suit.

Western Exploration, one of the mining companies that initiated the suit, argues the U.S. Forest Service approved its operations that include provisions to protect sage grouse. The new environmental protections preclude Western from drilling until mid-July each year, the suit said.

Western argues it has invested millions of dollars in its venture and at no time before June 1 did the Forest Service ever indicate areas might be considered for withdrawal from mineral entry.

In its response, the federal government said claims that the land-use amendments will increase fire risk by limiting grazing or close thousands of miles of roads are false.

“Grazing will continue under existing permits,” Nevada U.S. Attorney Daniel Bogden wrote in a brief filed Oct. 23. He said grazing permits will be reviewed and modified through normal procedures in coming years to ensure livestock grazing is done in accordance with the plan’s objectives.

Likewise, Bogden said existing backcountry roads will remain open “until the agencies complete a separate transportation management planning process.”

Bogden said the Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision that a listing for sage grouse is no longer warranted is dependent upon the “continued implementation of the regulatory mechanisms and conservation efforts” contained in the land-use plans.

“An injunction would undo four years of collaboration and could undermine (the service’s) finding,” he wrote.

Contact Sandra Chereb at schereb@reviewjournal.com or 775-687-3901. Find her on Twitter: @sandrachereb.

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