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Utah Fights Feds|Over Sage Grouse

SALT LAKE CITY (CN) - Federal plans to protect millions of acres in the West for sage grouse will hurt Utah's booming oil and gas industry, the governor claims in a federal lawsuit.

Gov. Gary Herbert, the state, and the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration sued the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, the Department of the Interior on Feb. 4 in Federal Court.

It's one of many lawsuits filed in recent years over the sage grouse: environmentalists seeking protections, and ranchers opposing them.

Herbert claims that Utah "for more than two decades" has "devoted significant resources to conserve Utah's sage grouse populations."

In September last year, Herbert says, on recommendation from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the defendant agencies opted not to list the sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act.

This came after Herbert in 2013 approved a "landmark" conservation plan to "enhance and expand" sage grouse conservation, the Republican governor says.

But in 2015, "notwithstanding numerous objections of plaintiffs," the defendants "unilaterally adopted an unprecedented management plan for millions of acres of federal lands in Utah for the ostensible purpose of conserving sage grouse habitat," according to the complaint.

Herbert says that federal amendments to his state's plan "disregarded the hallmark of federal land management - multiple use and sustained yield - and impose contradictory, and often unnecessary, restrictions on all activities in or near speculative habitat."

Washington directed state agencies to minimize the impact of activities on the birds, consult with the state on decisions that could affect their habitat, and weave plan directives into state operations and report on the efforts.

The land-use plans also restricted mineral development in high-value habitat.

Roughly half of sage grouse habitat is on federal lands, most of which is managed by the federal defendants.

In 2015 Herbert signed an executive order to protect sage grouse, joining 10 other states, including Wyoming and Nevada, that have significant sage grouse populations.

Utah harbors 6.1 percent of the West's sage grouse habitat and 6.8 percent of the population, according to the complaint.

Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes said that federal plans have "jeopardized conservation of the species."

Reyes claimed the federal agencies "issued the mandatory management plan amendments ... completely disregarding land use agreements and Utah's sage-grouse conservation historical success."

"This unprecedented action has jeopardized conservation of the species and reasonable public use of the land in Utah," Reyes said.

Herbert called the federal regulations a "one-size-fits-all" decision.

"The 2,000 pages of new regulations recently imposed by the federal government are in many ways more restrictive than an Endangered Species Act designation," Herbert said in a statement Thursday. "This one-size-fits-all decision does not reflect the tremendous diversity in greater sage grouse habitats across the West. Today's action by the state will allow greater flexibility in protecting this unique species while allowing reasonable economic growth in rural Utah."

Herbert said Utah was "better positioned" than feds to manage its sage grouse population.

"I have always believed that, as a state, Utah is better positioned to manage our sage grouse population than the federal government. Utah has adopted a strong conservation plan designed to protect, enhance and restore sage grouse habitats throughout the state. This effort by Utah has resulted in the restoration of more than 500,000 acres of sage grouse habitat and a significant growth in sage grouse populations. It is unfortunate that the federal government has decided to reject this successful plan."

Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell said in September 2015 that thanks to "the largest land conservation effort in U.S. history," sage grouse did not need to be listed as endangered, sparking widespread dissent from environmentalists.

In October, Wyoming cattlemen sued for the opposite reason , claiming plans to protect 16 million acres of sage grouse habitat ignored adverse affects on grazing.

Utah BLM Director Jenna Whitlock on Friday declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Herbert wants the federal amendments set aside, vacated and remanded.

His lead counsel is Francis Wikstrom with Parsons Behle & Latimer.

The Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration is tasked with managing state trust lands for the benefit of Utah schools and hospitals.

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