Conservationists say federal rules that allow livestock grazing and oil and gas development across 25 million acres of public land in the West are illegal because they fail to acknowledge the harm being done to sage grouse.
A lawsuit recently filed in federal court accuses the Bureau of Land Management of violating two major environmental laws and its own regulations by allowing commercial activities to continue on those lands in California, Nevada, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and Utah.
But in a switch in strategy, the environmentalists aren't asking a judge to immediately halt those operations. They want to talk, and they think they may have a willing listener in the new Obama administration.
"What we are after is finding a way to do things differently than in the past and better manage these public lands into the future," said Laird Lucas, a lawyer for the Western Watersheds Project, which filed the suit.
Since taking office, President Obama has distanced himself from several Bush administration policies on the environment and suspended some administrative orders Bush signed in the waning days of his term that could lead to the easing of protections for threatened wildlife on federal land.
The change in administrations prompted the new approach from the Idaho-based environmental group that has spent much of the past eight years in court battling land-use rules adopted by the BLM and Forest Service.
Kendra Barkoff, press secretary for Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, said Friday "we are in the preliminary stages of litigation and as a result can't comment."
Ranchers and drillers said the suit is part of an effort to keep livestock, energy development and other commercial activities off an area of the West bigger than the state of Indiana.
"They are trying to tie up 25 million acres and close it down to livestock operators altogether," said Ronald Opsahl, a lawyer for the Mountain States Legal Foundation, which represents the Wyoming Stock Growers Association and the Petroleum Association of Wyoming. "As far as the scope of this case, it has to be unprecedented."
The focus of the lawsuit is a chicken-size game bird - mottled brown, black and white - found on sagebrush plains and high desert from Colorado to California and into southern Canada. The government estimates as many as 16 million sage grouse inhabited the West in the early 1800s when they were first observed by Lewis and Clark. Today their numbers have dwindled to as low as 100,000, according to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service census in 2005.
At issue in the lawsuit is the BLM's National Sage Grouse Habitat Conservation Strategy. The agency adopted it in 2004 as an interim plan to help protect the bird and guide management of federal rangeland while the Fish and Wildlife Service considered whether to protect the sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act.
The wildlife service determined in 2005 not to list the sage grouse as an endangered or threatened species, but a federal judge overturned the decision. The agency is expected to deliver a new decision on whether to protect the bird this year.