Nevadans sue Obama, alleging politics at play over grouse protection laws

© Bob Wick / BLM
Federal officials were driven by politics and not science in crafting policy to protect the state's fragile sage grouse population, according to a legal filing from ranchers, miners, nine Nevada counties, and the state's attorney general.

A court motion seeking to halt federal initiatives to protect the sage grouse says three federal officials with the US Department of Interior, who called themselves the 'Grouseketeers,' after 'Mouseketeer' cast members of a Disney variety show, improperly sought conservationist insight into the grouse-protection process.

The public was "unlawfully deprived of the disclosure and [environmental] impact analysis required" by the National Environmental Policy Act and the Federal Land Planning Management Act," the plaintiffs argued in a motion of summary judgment filed last week, according to the Associated Press. Furthermore, the plaintiffs, who originally filed the lawsuit in September, said the US Bureau of Land Management "reverse-engineered studies with pre-determined conclusions designed to defend the land management restrictions."

"There was a political agenda rather than a scientific basis for requiring withdrawals and absolute prohibitions on development and use," wrote the plaintiffs' attorney Laura Granier.

The fight over sage grouse protection in Western US states like Nevada pits conservationists and defenders of the grouse against ranching, mining, and other interests that seek to maintain access to use of federal public land. Heightened protections of grouse habitat hinder industrial development, opponents of the protections say.

The grouse – chicken-sized birds without high-flying capabilities – was nearly added to the US Endangered Species Act before the Department of Interior opted against doing so upon a September deadline for such a decision. Instead, Interior Department Secretary Sally Jewell decided to employ land-use amendments to protect the bird. Plaintiffs in the suit say federal government agencies involved in grouse management "rushed through the process" in a manner they say was illegal.

"The administrative record reveals astonishing overreach and disregard for public involvement and statutory requirements to impose a top-down policy engineered by three officials in the Department of Interior," Granier, the plaintiffs' attorney, wrote.

The lawsuit protects Nevadans' interests, says plaintiff Adam Laxalt, the state's attorney general, and that the federal government's "one-size-fits-all sage grouse plan" will hurt growth, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported in November.

The plaintiffs are asking US District Judge Miranda Du to consider the motion and suspend the government's protection plan until the Interior Department and other agencies offer a new environmental impact statement that considers alterations to the plan made after the public comment period. Judge Du has twice before rejected such action requested by the plaintiffs. She has given the federal government until April 25 to respond, AP reported.

Laxalt says the grouse protection plan would halt development for ranching or mining on about 3 million of the state's federal lands.

"The self-appointed 'Grouseketeers' mock all Nevadans and show their true agenda," Laxalt said.

The 'Grousekeeters' are Deputy Assistant Interior Secretaries Jim Lyons and Michael Bean, and Sarah Greenberger, legal counsel to Secretary Jewell. They met with conservationists after the public comment period to "get insight as to what would be required for (them) to 'buy-in,'" Granier wrote.

While plaintiffs claim grouse protectors have been favored in the process, conservation groups have also filed lawsuits against the federal government for its actions in the process. Last week, the Western Watersheds Project filed a lawsuit in Reno over the Bureau of Land Management's construction of fences near grouse habitat areas. Grouse, they say, cannot fly over the fences and are severely hurt when they strike such barriers.

BLM's sage grouse protection plan "is just a pile of paper written to avoid an Endangered Species Act listing," said Ken Cole, Idaho director for the Western Watersheds Project, according the Review-Journal.

In March, the Western Watersheds Project filed a broader lawsuit that challenges the overall federal grouse protection plan in 10 western states.

Ranchers “have resisted the BLM’s drought closures and instead bullied the BLM into considering a slew of proposals for new livestock infrastructure to justify more grazing on the badly degraded public lands,” said Paul Ruprecht, a lawyer for Western Watersheds.

“Rather than insist upon needed rest periods, the BLM has caved to rancher demands to allow their herds back onto the parched landscapes and enabled that use by approving the contested fencing,” he added.

The ranchers who requested the fencing say that, since they have paid all their federal fees to use public lands, they differ from the likes of Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher who triggered an armed standoff with federal agents in 2014 over livestock grazing fees for use of public lands that he has refused to pay. Bundy's sons were ringleaders of the six-week occupation of a federal wildlife reserve in Oregon. All three are now facing federal charges for a variety of offenses, including threats to federal agents.