Greater Sage Grouse Protections Hatching Lawsuits

Published May 31, 2016

The Obama administration’s greater sage grouse protection plan has spawned multiple lawsuits, including two since April.

The administration’s plan to protect the sage grouse, while avoiding listing the ground-dwelling bird as “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), places strict limits on the use of more than 180 million acres of federal, state, and private lands across the bird’s historic range, which covers 11 Western states.

In one lawsuit, Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt and lawyers for nine Nevada counties, ranchers, and miners say three top Interior Department officials who dubbed themselves the “Grouseketeers” illegally sought input from conservationists outside the planning process and that the grouse protection plan contravenes the best scientific evidence presented by the Obama administration’s own experts.

The most recent lawsuit, filed in May by the Denver-based Western Energy Alliance (WEA) and the North Dakota Petroleum Council (NDPC), challenges federal land-use plan amendments that put additional protections in place in fall 2015 for the greater sage grouse. WEA and NDPC argue the Department of the Interior did not follow the proper administrative procedures when it placed new restrictions on oil and gas drilling on federal lands to protect grouse habitats.

Plan Will Cost Jobs and Revenue

Kathleen Sgamma, vice president of government and public affairs for the Western Energy Alliance, says WEA’s lawsuit is different from the seven others because it specifically challenges the oil and gas limitations in the plans.

“We kind of look at these plans as a way to drive off drillers from federal lands,” Sgamma said.

A WEA economic analysis estimates the sage grouse restrictions will result in estimated job losses totaling 9,170–18,250. WEA also estimates the restrictions will reduce economic growth by $2.435 billion to $4.847 billion in the four main states affected: Colorado, Montana, Utah, and Wyoming.

“We also think the [federal protection plan] harms the sage grouse, whose population of about 425,000, is robust and has been stable over five decades,” Sgamma said. “Meanwhile, states are protecting the sage grouse more effectively than a single, top-down management plan from the federal government can.” 

Protection Plan is Punitive

Brian Seasholes, director of the Endangered Species Project at the Reason Foundation, says the federal plan is worse than an ESA listing because it’s purely punitive.

“If the sage grouse is listed as endangered, there would still be some wiggle room about drilling, but under the federal plan, it is de facto government land management, and no one will ever be able to drill on federal lands again,” Seasholes said.

“Sage grouse breed and hatch their chicks in areas known as ‘leks,’ which tend to be on dryer, sagebrush-dominated land, most of which is federally owned by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service,” said Seasholes.

“The 15 amended sage grouse resource management plans and land-use plans are poised to restrict grazing on these lands, with one likely outcome being ranchers [will be] pushed off federal lands, and as a result, [ranchers will graze] their own private lands more intensively [and] for longer periods of time,” Seasholes said. “The result will be ‘moist’ privately owned land will decrease in quality for sage grouse, because they prefer to have taller grasses, where they can hide from predators.

“If these moist privately owned areas are grazed more intensively for longer periods of time, the grass will be shorter for more of the year, thereby rendering it unsuitable to shelter sage grouse,” said Seasholes.

Seasholes says the sage grouse plan discourages owners from cooperating with conservationists.

“Under this plan, no one is going to stand up and say, ‘Hey, I think I’ve got sage grouse on my ranch, do you want to come and check it out?'” said Seasholes. “They won’t do this because the federal government will punish them with fines or threats of shutting down their normal operations.

“If we want successful conservation, then we want people to cooperate, and they’re not going to do that if you punish them,” said Seasholes. 

Plan Also Harms Consumers

Ron Arnold, executive vice president of the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise, say the federal plan is unprecedented and the largest federal land grab ever.

“The activists behind this have the goal of destroying American ranching, logging, and oil and gas production,” Arnold said.

“This plan is short-sighted, because it harms both the people working in these states and the people who use their products,” Arnold said.

“The greater sage grouse protection plan comes from academic elites, who have no understanding of the actual conditions on the ground or what is necessary to protect species while sustaining economic prosperity,” said Arnold.

Kenneth Artz ([email protected]) writes from Dallas, Texas.


“Final Analysis of the Impact of Greater Sage Grouse Restrictions on Oil and Natural Gas Development and Production,” John Dunham and Associates, May 14, 2015: