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Utah officials on Thursday filed a lawsuit seeking to invalidate federal land-use plan revisions aimed at conserving imperiled greater sage grouse, but critics say the state should be careful of getting what it's asking from the courts.
Those plan revisions, adopted by the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service last September, were a crucial part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's much-lauded decision to not list sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act.
While other Western states cheered that decision, Utah leaders pouted. They said federal land-use plans, which restrict mineral development in high-value habitat, will be just as burdensome as a decision to list the ground-nesting bird, which once abounded in the West's high-elevation sagebrush steppes.
Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes says the feds ignored what scientific evidence indicates would be best for Utah sage grouse and illegally trampled on the state's own conservation plan that Gov. Gary Herbert approved in 2013.
The federal agencies "issued the mandatory management plan amendments ... completely disregarding land use agreements and Utah's sage-grouse conservation historical success," Reyes said in a prepared statement. "This unprecedented action has jeopardized conservation of the species and reasonable public use of the land in Utah."
But conservationists wonder if Utah is courting trouble with this suit.
"The decision to not list was very much based on those plan revisions, 99 of them, to protect sage grouse, because the bar was set high enough and promises were made. If you undo all that, of course they are going to revisit the listing decision. That's opening a can of worms," said biologist Allison Jones, executive director for the Wild Utah Project.
These plans apply to 126 million acres of public land across 11 Western states primarily Utah neighbors Nevada and Wyoming, whose Republican governors shared a podium with Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announcing the decision to not list sage grouse.
Utah's suit targets only the plans covering Utah, which harbors 6.1 percent of the West's sage grouse habitat and 6.8 percent of the population, according to the suit.
Interior officials declined to comment on the suit.
"The BLM-USFS plans follow the best available science and were developed collaboratively with state and local partners. We believe the plans are both balanced and effective - protecting key sage-grouse habitat and providing for sustainable development," Interior spokesman Blake Androff offered in a prepared statement. " We look forward to implementing them in collaboration with states and stakeholders."
Over the past two years, the Utah Legislature has appropriated $4 million to pay Big Game Forever, a politically connected anti-predator advocacy group, to push legislation to prevent the feds from listing the sage grouse. The group continued collecting even after the Fish and Wildlife declined to list last September. Big Game Forever's contract was to be adjusted to direct its efforts toward getting the federal land-use plan revisions rescinded, according to Mike Styler, director of the Department of Natural Resources.
A key issue for Utah wildlife officials focuses on how grouse habitat exists in isolated "islands" between Utah mountain ranges. The federal plans are allegedly tailored toward the "sagebrush seas" vast swaths of contiguous habitat found in Wyoming and Nevada.
"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 in a news release.
The suit takes direct aim at a National Technical Team, whose findings influenced the crafting of the federal land-use plans. Utah is asking the court to bar any future use of that report in analyses or decision making regarding sage grouse.
"These federal land use plan amendments 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," states the suit Reyes filed in U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City.
State officials often say sage grouse numbers are rebounding in Utah. But sine 1965, they have increased by a mere .77 percent, according to the AG's announcement.
Utah's congressional delegation was quick to applaud the suit and heap further derision on federal management of the West's public lands.
"No one is better suited to look after Utah's interests than the people who live and work in Utah. The [Obama] administration asked the state to come up with a plan to protect the bird. Utah did. It was a good plan. The administration rejected it for its own flawed plan," said Rep. Rob Bishop, who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee. "The Obama administration's plan threatens military readiness and stops economic well-being while it attempts to impose its misguided will on the West. Utah is right. The White House is wrong. This lawsuit can prove that."
The lawsuit alleges BLM is pitting federal mandates against thoughtful state-led conservation strategies. State leaders contend a heavy federal hand will discourage voluntary actions and investments that would otherwise ensure the bird's survival.
"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," Herbert said.
Last year, federal officials, including Jewell herself, praised Utah's conservation plan for identifying areas to be managed for grouse conservation and restoring habitat through removal of encroaching conifers. They emphasized that the federal land-use directives complemented various state plans.
State officials "still have that opportunity to prove the [state] plans work without undoing the good work of these federal agencies. Nothing was rejected," Jones said. "There was a never a system in place to reject or endorse the state plans."
She argued that the state plan won't be enough to keep Utah's sage grouse out of danger because it applies only to state and private lands, while much of the bird's habitat remains on public land administered by BLM and Forest Service.