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    Conservation groups ask judge to protect sage grouse habitat

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    Proposed plans could cause already fragile sage-grouse populations to disappear completely.
    Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife

    Four conservation groups have asked a federal judge to block new plans that allow drilling, mining and other activities across 51 million acres of greater sage-grouse habitat in seven western states: Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, Nevada, California and Oregon, according to Greta Anderson, deputy director of Western Watersheds Project.

    The motion for a preliminary injunction, filed Friday in U.S. District Court for the District of Idaho in Boise, says the land-management plans approved by Interior Secretary David Bernhardt last month would gut protections for the birds’ dwindling populations and destroy their habitat, wrote Anderson.

    “Since 2004 scientists have warned that preventing sage grouse from sliding toward extinction requires protecting all of its remaining habitats and populations. The Trump administration has gone in exactly the opposite direction,” said Laird J. Lucas of Advocates for the West, lead attorney for the plaintiffs.

    “Interior Secretary Bernhardt is opening up key sage-grouse strongholds to energy development and other impacts, while falsely claiming this will help sage grouse. Lying about what these plan changes mean violates bedrock requirements of federal law, and we are asking the court to hold this administration accountable.”

    “Sage-grouse are an American icon that will be irreparably harmed by the wanton destruction of sagebrush habitats that the recent amendments allow,” said Erik Molvar of Western Watersheds Project. “From rolling back protections in sensitive habitats to removing habitat designations entirely, the plans could cause already fragile sage-grouse populations to disappear completely. We need to stop that.”

    “Bernhardt’s despicable plan is to open every last acre of sage-grouse habitat to fracking,” said Randi Spivak, public lands program director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “He’s stripping critical protections, holding fire sales of our public lands and pushing these beautiful birds to extinction. We’re asking the court to preserve sage-grouse protections until our claims can be heard.”

    “Sage-grouse populations are in serious trouble across the West,” said Sarah McMillan of WildEarth Guardians. “These plans hasten their extinction by allowing extractive industries increased access to the last best public lands habitats for the birds.”

    Friday’s motion is supported by expert declarations from sage-grouse scientists, wildlife biologists and public-lands enthusiasts, who urged the judge to stop the Trump administration’s plans.

    “BLM essentially ignored analyzing either current habitat conditions and fragmentation or how plan changes may impact sage-grouse habitats,” said wildlife biologist Clint Braun, who spent 30 years with the Colorado Division of Wildlife, including as its avian program manager.

    The revisions “are contrary to the best available science and will allow significant adverse impacts to sage-grouse populations and habitats that BLM has failed to acknowledge and has misrepresented in its decision documents.”

    In March the conservation groups sued Bernhardt and the Bureau of Land Management over the new land use plans, which rescinded or weakened 2015 plans on BLM land in the seven states with most of the remaining sage-grouse population.

    That complaint supplemented a 2016 lawsuit arguing that those earlier plans – intended to avoid Endangered Species Act listing – didn’t go far enough to protect the grouse.

    Greater sage grouse once occupied hundreds of millions of acres across the West, but their populations have plummeted as oil and gas development, livestock grazing, roads, powerlines and other activities have destroyed and fragmented their native habitats.

    Advocates for the West, a nonprofit, public-interest law firm based in Boise, represent Western Watersheds Project, the Center for Biological Diversity, WildEarth Guardians and Prairie Hills Audubon Society.

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