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Miners, Ranchers Fight USA Over Sage Grouse

RENO, Nev. (CN) - Nevada ranchers and miners sued the Department of the Interior to try to stop it from protecting the greater sage grouse.

The Nevada Association of Counties, the Nevada Mineral Resources Alliance, and the American Exploration & Mining Association challenge the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's 2011 settlement of a lawsuit from WildEarth Guardians and the Center for Biological Diversity.

The settlement requires Fish and Wildlife to determine by September 2016 the endangered or threatened status of hundreds of animals and plants across the United States, including the greater sage grouse.

U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan in the District of Columbia approved the settlement on Sept. 9, 2011. It requires Fish and Wildlife to make a decision by the deadline on 252 candidate species.

But now the miners and ranchers claim the settlement violated the Endangered Species Act, the Administrative Procedures Act and the Constitution's guarantees of due process and separation of powers.

They claim that Fish and Wildlife "circumvented the legislative process" and settled with the environmentalists in order to "alter its obligations under federal statutes through settlement of litigation with no congressional action."

The Dec. 4 lawsuit claims Fish and Wildlife denied the Nevada Association of Counties and others the chance to help shape policy by eliminating "the statutory option under the ESA for FWS to conclude, based on the best available science and commercial data, that certain species be 'warranted but precluded' from listing as endangered or threatened, a determination which would leave primary jurisdiction for wildlife management with the state."

Under the Endangered Species Act, Fish and Wildlife may find protections for species "warranted," "not warranted," or "warranted but precluded." When it designates a species as "warranted but precluded," the plaintiffs say, the Endangered Species Act requires Fish and Wildlife to "prioritize its limited resources" on other species that are more imminently endangered or threatened.

The plaintiffs claim that Fish and Wildlife refused to consider protections for the greater sage grouse as warranted but precluded.

"The settlement is illegal because it eliminates the congressionally mandated warranted but precluded category for the greater sage grouse and the other 289 species included in the settlement, sets arbitrary decision deadlines and frustrates the very purposes of the Endangered Species Act," American Exploration & Mining Association executive director Laura Skaer said in a statement.

"We and the other co-plaintiffs are asking the court to set aside the illegal settlement and require USFWS to follow the law as enacted by Congress and evaluate whether the greater sage grouse should remain a candidate species," said Skaer. "This is particularly important for greater sage grouse because intensive state, local and private habitat conservation measures are in progress throughout Nevada and other Western states with greater sage grouse habitat."

The plaintiffs claim the "agreement to forego consideration of a species' classification as 'warranted but precluded by higher priorities' significantly diminishes the likelihood that conservation measures can achieve the very purpose of the 'warranted but precluded' listing."

The greater sage grouse lives at elevations ranging from about 4,000 feet to 9,000 feet, mostly in the Great Basin. It feeds exclusively on sagebrush and nests on the ground.

The plaintiffs seek declaratory judgment and an injunction removing the greater sage grouse from the 2011 settlement.

They are represented by Laura K. Granier with Davis, Graham and Stubbs.

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