Friday, April 17, 2009

Lawyers ask judge to split sweeping grazing suit

The federal government is asking a judge to break apart a sweeping lawsuit that accuses federal land managers of putting grazing and energy interests ahead of preserving sage grouse across millions of acres of public land in six western states.

The lawsuit, filed last year in U.S. District Court here, challenges 16 separate land use plans developed by the Bureau of Land Management to manage 25 million acres in Montana, Idaho, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming and northern California.

The Idaho-based Western Watersheds Project contends the BLM violated federal environmental laws, as well as its own policies, in writing those plans. In its lawsuit, the group accuses the agency of failing to fully consider the impacts livestock grazing, oil and gas drilling and other activities would have on the sage grouse and its diminishing habitat.

Thursday's hearing before U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill focused on procedure instead of the legal merits of the case.

According to government lawyers, the case right now is too broad to address the distinct differences and nuances of the agency's 16 management plans.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Deborah Ferguson, representing the BLM, wants Winmill to split case so it can be argued separately in federal courthouses in each of the six states. Keeping the case in Boise and wrapped in one, all-encompassing legal challenge ignores the unique nature of each 20-year management plan and the local involvement that went into crafting them, she said.

"It's not a case of if you've seen one, you've seen them all," Ferguson told the judge.

The Wyoming Stock Growers Association and the Petroleum Association of Wyoming have joined the government's attempt to split and dismiss the case.

Laird Lucas, a lawyer for Western Watersheds, said the case should remain consolidated because it's based on the same common legal thread: In developing each of the 16 management plans, BLM decision makers neglected to consider a no-grazing option as a way to protect and enhance sage grouse habitat.

As a result, Lucas said, the agency violated the National Environmental Policy Act and its own sage grouse management plan developed in 2004 to avoid having the bird listed under the Endangered Species Act.

"All these plans have the same defects," Lucas said. "It makes no sense to break these into six different cases."

Winmill said he intends to rule quickly, but did not indicate when.

In recent years, Western Watersheds has delivered several legal blows to the federal government's management of sage grouse, a chicken-sized bird that once proliferated in the sagebrush plains and high desert ecosystems from Colorado to northeastern California and into southern Canada.

Government scientists say as many as 16 million sage grouse lived in western states in the early 1800s, but its numbers have dwindled to about 100,000, according to a 2005 estimate.

Conservationists and biologists attribute the drop to rapid declines in sagebrush habitat from urban development, energy development, wildfires, invasive weed growth, global warming and livestock grazing.

Despite an appeal by conservationists, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined the bird didn't deserve to be listed as a threatened or endangered species in 2005. Western Watersheds responded with a lawsuit challenging that decision, and in 2007 Winmill sided with the organization.

In his ruling, Winmill concluded the decision by the wildlife service ignored key science and was tainted by political meddling by Bush administration appointees. The wildlife service was ordered to revisit the listing decision and is expected to issue a new decision later this year.

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