Letters from the West

Federal judge tosses Otter’s sage grouse lawsuit against Obama administration

A sage grouse at the Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge in Wyoming. A federal judge struck down Idaho’s lawsuit Thursday against a federal land use plan to protect the bird that convinced the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service not to list the bird under the federal Endangered Species Act in 2015.
A sage grouse at the Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge in Wyoming. A federal judge struck down Idaho’s lawsuit Thursday against a federal land use plan to protect the bird that convinced the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service not to list the bird under the federal Endangered Species Act in 2015. AP

A federal judge in Washington D.C. ruled Thursday against Idaho Gov. Butch Otter's challenge to the Obama administration's sage grouse plan covering Idaho and southwest Montana.

U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan found that the court lacked jurisdiction to hear the state’s claims –saying that because the state didn’t make any actual claims of actual harm flowing from the plans, there wasn’t a case to hear. He did not rule on the merits of the case.

Sullivan ruled that while the plan contains binding commitments efforts by Idaho to show the loss of revenue from restrictions on oil and gas development, grazing and other development were to speculative to put before the court.

He said since the plan only affected federal land, it does not infringe on Idaho’s state sovereignty, such as in managing wildlife.

Otter could appeal the decision, which could have effects on the many other lawsuits filed by mining companies, Utah, ranchers and even environmentalists.

The lawsuit followed the announcement of an Interior-Agriculture "all lands" strategy to develop a landscape conservation plan to prevent the listing of sage grouse. The strategy was built on amendments to 98 amendments to federal land plans, including the Idaho-Montana plan, that beef up restrictions on development on 173 million acres of sage grouse habitat and proposes to withdraw 10 million acres from oil and gas and mineral development.

It also depends on a national fire strategy emphasizing protecting sagebrush habitat that Interior Secretary Sally Jewell pushed through in 2015 and credited Otter, who had made fire the center of Idaho’s grouse plan.

But Otter and Utah Gov. Gary Herbert were unhappy with the plan as was the Northwest Mining Association and other industry groups. They especially disliked the Sagebrush Focal Areas that were designed to protect the bird's strongholds and were added after collaborative efforts.

The combined effort includes 11 states, especially Wyoming, which has the most sage grouse habitat and where $424 million in federal, state and private projects are proposed for 1,129 ranches that protects 4.4 million acres. In August, a Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies survey showed sage grouse populations grew by nearly two-thirds since 2013 and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a "not warranted" listing decision in September.

A congressional rider, which has not passed yet, would give states the right to put their plans in place instead of the federal plan, even though the lands are managed by the federal government, which would undercut the listing decision.

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