Feds Face Fresh Lawsuit to Protect Threatened Sage Grouse

Male sage grouses are seen fighting for the attention of females southwest of Rawlins, Wyo., on May 9, 2008. (Jerret Raffety/The Rawlins Daily Times via AP, File)

(CN) — Environmental groups sued the Trump administration in federal court Monday for failing to protect the threatened Gunnison sage grouse from cattle grazing across its southwestern Colorado habitat.

The peacock of the prairie, the male Gunnison sage grouse has spiky barred tailfeathers and striking snowy plumage around its throat. During mating season, males woo females by inflating yellow air sacs on their chest. Despite its uniqueness, the sage grouse is one of the most endangered animals in the world.

Since 2013, the Gunnison sage grouse population in Utah and Colorado has declined by half. In 2013, an estimated 3,149 birds inhabited the Gunnison Basin, compared to 1,667 today. To be considered viable, the birds must maintain a population above 5,000.

Many environmental groups say the birds are particularly vulnerable amid Trump-era protection rollbacks.

“The Gunnison sage grouse is in sharp decline and will certainly go extinct if immediate action isn’t taken to save it,” said Ryan Shannon, a staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity in a statement. “The Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service need to step up before it’s too late and protect these beautiful grouse from livestock grazing.”

When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service added the bird to the threatened species list in 2013, it designated 1.7 million acres as critical habitat and created the Gunnison Basin Candidate Conservation Agreement to manage the bird’s survival. The agreement is expected to hold for two decades, unless new information — like the steep population decline — supports the need for revisions. 

In its 30-page lawsuit filed against the Department of Interior and underlying agencies, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Western Watershed contend the agreement is not only inadequate but that key parts remain unenforced.

One arbitrary provision is grass height. Even though sage grouse need grass at least 7 inches tall, the government set guidelines to maintain grass heights from 3.9 to 5.9 inches.

“Many of the federal lands leased for livestock grazing in Gunnison sage grouse habitat have been failing basic land-health standards as a direct result of heavy livestock grazing,” said Talasi Brooks, staff attorney with Western Watersheds Project in a statement. “If we’re serious about recovering this spectacular and embattled bird, we’re going to need to address the damage being done by private cows on these public lands.”

According to the lawsuit, the Fish and Wildlife Service has long acknowledged the risks posed by grazing cattle.

According to the lawsuit, the federal agency concluded “certain authorized activities such as livestock grazing were likely to adversely affect the Gunnison sage grouse, [but] the Gunnison Basin Candidate Conservation Agreement would not jeopardize the continued existence of the Gunnison sage grouse or destroy or adversely modify its critical habitat if Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service, and National Park Service implemented specific conservation measures and adhered to annual reporting requirement.”

Documents provided to the Center for Biological Diversity through Freedom of Information Act requests show mandatory reporting on annual takings and population growth are not occurring.

The groups want a federal judge to prevent the federal agencies from allowing livestock grazing on sage grouse habitat and to award attorneys’ fees.

The Department of Interior did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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