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Lawsuit Challenges Limits on Industry That Aim to Save Bird

The case appears to be the first challenge to the Interior Department's declaration this week

BILLINGS — Officials in Idaho and Nevada and some mining companies sued the federal government over new restrictions on mining, energy development and grazing that are intended to protect a declining bird species across millions of acres of the American West.

The cases are the first to contest the Obama administration’s declaration this week that it can protect the greater sage grouse without hobbling the region’s economy. Some Republicans and critics from the mining and energy industries contend that the restrictions imposed instead of Endangered Species Act protections for the bird were equally onerous and would stifle development.

Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter said Friday that federal officials wrongly ignored local efforts to protect the bird, leading him to sue in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C.

“We didn’t want a (threatened or endangered) listing, but in many ways these administrative rules are worse,” the Republican governor said in a statement.

A similar lawsuit was filed in Nevada by an attorney for two counties and some mining companies.

To shield the sage grouse from possible extinction, U.S. Department of Interior officials want to withdraw 10 million acres of land from future mining claims, prohibit oil and gas drilling near the bird’s breeding grounds and impose new reviews on livestock grazing permits.

Such steps to limit disturbance of the sagebrush habitat where grouse dwell were a key factor in the government’s decision Tuesday to reject listing the bird as threatened or endangered.

The two lawsuits were directed at newly signed federal land-use plans that cover portions of Nevada, Montana, Idaho, California, Utah and Oregon but have implications across the bird’s 11-state range.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and their agencies were named as defendants.

Some wildlife advocates said the government’s sage grouse plans were too permissive for industry. They also are considering legal challenges.

A spokeswoman for Jewell said the plans followed the best available science for protecting the bird.

“We believe the plans are both balanced and effective — protecting key sage-grouse habitat and providing for sustainable development,” spokeswoman Jessica Kershaw said.

She declined to comment directly on the lawsuits.

Opposition to the administration’s plans is not universal among Republicans: Two GOP governors — Wyoming’s Matt Mead and Nevada’s Brian Sandoval — joined Jewell in Colorado this week when she announced the land-use plans.

North America’s greater sage grouse population once numbered an estimated 16 million birds. In recent decades, the species lost roughly half its habitat to development, livestock grazing and an invasive grass that’s encouraging wildfires in the Great Basin of Nevada and adjoining states. There are now an estimated 200,000 to 500,000 birds.

The Nevada lawsuit, filed Wednesday in Reno, warns of the “total destruction of certain businesses” if the land-use plans stand.

Attorney Laura Granier cited two gold and silver mining proposals that she said would be harder or impossible to develop under the new plans. Oil and gas exploration and grazing also would suffer, Granier said.

The plaintiffs in the case are Elko and Eureka counties, Quantum Minerals LLC and Western Exploration LLC.

Federal lands encompass more than 70 percent of Elko County and 80 percent of Eureka County, primarily administered by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, according to the lawsuit.

The proposal to withdraw 10 million acres from new mining claims will go through a review lasting up to two years before it can be finalized.

The land-use plans also called for rules barring new oil and gas drilling across roughly 10 million acres, Kershaw said. That’s a smaller area than the 12 million acres cited by Interior officials when the plans were finalized this week and reflects changes from earlier proposals.

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