Split Decision in Western War Over Sage Grouse

RENO, Nev. (CN) — Nevada counties, miners and ranchers split a decision with environmentalists in a long-running battle with the federal and state governments over the protected sage grouse and its habitat — this time in Nevada.

At least 38 lawsuits have been filed to protect the country’s largest grouse, which lives in Western scrublands and juniper forests. Its population is declining due to widespread habitat destruction by mining, ranching, development and other factors. Environmentalists have sued the Department of the Interior, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and others repeatedly since at least 2010, when they refused to list the bird as threatened or endangered, with a new round of lawsuits coming since 2015, when Fish and Wildlife declared protections for the species “warranted but precluded,” in essence, putting the bird on a waiting list behind other species.

U.S. District Judge Miranda Du issued a split decision on March 31, finding the Secretary of the Interior did not comply with the National Environmental Protection Act in some land-use plans in Nevada, granting and denying partial summary judgments to both sides in Western Exploration LLC et al. v. U.S. Department of the Interior, et al.

In September 2015, Elko and Eureka Counties in northern Nevada and Western Exploration Quantum Minerals sued the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service over their amended land-use plan in Nevada. The counties said the federal plans violated with own, and would hurt ranchers, miners and other businesses.

With some reservations, Du agreed, and remanded to U.S. District Court with orders that any land-use plan comply with federal laws.

“The decision to designate certain lands as particular kinds of sage-grouse habitat affects subsequent management decision on those lands,” Du wrote.

She found the federal government “did not allow for intelligent public participation” during the planning process and granted summary judgment on this to Elko County, et al.

She remanded the records of decision and ordered the agencies to prepare a supplemental environmental impact statement is consistent with her order.

Elko County encompasses nearly 11 million acres occupied by 52,760 residents.

It claims the federal plans would interfere with its economic drivers: ranching, mining, recreation and tourism.

Western Mining said the federal plan would prevent it from mining potentially lucrative gold and silver mining claims in the area, though it has plans in place to protect the sage grouse.

The federal agencies in September 2015 issued joint records of decision, in which they incorporated sage grouse protections into their land-use management plans for some 67 million acres across 10 Western states. Du found that the federal plans intend to maintain healthy sagebrush-steppe landscapes, while ensuring multiple uses of the lands.

Elko et al. claimed the plans violate NEPA, the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, the National Forest Management Act, the Small Business Administration Regulatory Flexibility Act, the Administrative Procedure Act, the General Mining Law and the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment. It asked the court to enjoin the feds from implementing the Nevada portion of their plan, and Du agreed.

The feds argued that their land-use plan must stand, because withdrawal of lands for mineral entry was a separate process from the amended land-use plan. They also claimed that the plaintiffs lack standing and that their claims are not ripe.

Elko County, however, said that the federal plans affect 40 percent of its roads, and parts of 1,500 other county roads, clearly interfering with county land use.

Eureka County made a similar argument, saying the federal agencies’ plans violated its own, and interfere with ranching, farming and mining.

Du agreed, finding the federal plans adversely affect routine uses already in place, and that the counties’ claims are ripe.

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