States, Counties Fight Feds Over Sage Grouse

Published December 16, 2015

The Obama administration’s plan to impose strict land-use restrictions on 167 million acres in 11 Western states to protect the habitat of the greater sage grouse is being challenged in court by state and local governments and businesses in the region.

Kicking off a wave of lawsuits rolling across the West, two northeastern Nevada counties, Elko and Eureka, along with mining companies Western Exploration LLC and Quantum Minerals LLC, filed suit on September 25 against the Obama administration’s plan. They were joined on October 22 by seven more Nevada counties, Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt (R), and Paragon Precious Metals LLC and Ninety-Six Ranch. Subsequently, the State of Idaho and the Wyoming Stock Growers Association filed separate suits against the administration’s sage grouse plan.

Triggering the lawsuits was the Department of the Interior’s (DOI) September 23 announcement it would not list the greater sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Instead, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said the Obama administration would deal with the bird’s declining numbers by imposing 15 amended land-management plans throughout the grouse’s vast habitat.

Brian Seasholes, director of the Endangered Species Project at the Reason Foundation, says DOI’s plan is likely to harm the sage grouse.

“The federal plan is another manifestation of the top-down, penalty-based approach to conservation that has proven counterproductive,” said Seasholes. “Successful conservation depends on creating incentives for the thousands of private landowners, most of them ranchers, scattered throughout the sage grouse’s range.

“They are ideally positioned to implement conservation actions for the grouse because they are on the land 24/7 and have a strong attachment to the land and its health,” Seasholes said.

State Management Plans Ignored

Fearing listing the bird under ESA would lead to economically devastating land-use restrictions, state and local leaders, businesses, scientists, and conservationists spent years developing state management plans to protect the grouse while minimizing economic disruption. 

DOI ignored the state management plans, sparking the numerous lawsuits.

“The federal government’s one-size-fits-all sage-grouse plan will greatly hinder Nevada’s growth and success and have an adverse impact on Nevada’s economy, affecting ranchers, mining exploration, new energy source development, and everyone who works in these industries,” Laxalt said in a statement. “[My] office, after careful legal analysis, has concluded that this suit is necessary to fully protect the interest of the state.”


Rift Between Attorney General and Governor

Laxalt and the other plaintiffs have the support of a number of Nevada’s federal legislators including Sen. Dean Heller (R) and Republican Reps. Mark Amodei, Cresent Hardy, and Joe Heck.

“As I have said before, the final greater sage grouse plans are not a win for Nevada—new restrictions on 16 million acres in our state alone pose a threat to our Western way of life,” Heller said in a statement. “I support efforts to stop these unnecessary regulations in their tracks and allow rural Nevada to thrive economically.”

Laxalt’s decision to file suit put him at odds with Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval (R), who favors negotiating with the Obama administration for a mutually acceptable agreement. A statement issued by Sandoval’s office said Laxalt “is acting in his personal capacity and does not represent the State of Nevada, the Governor, or any state agencies.”

In the 90-page complaint from Nevada’s Humboldt County, one of the plaintiffs suing DOI, the county points out 80 percent of its 6.2 million acres are federally owned, with 40 percent of the county’s tax base coming from gold mining and livestock production being the primary agricultural pursuit. The county claims the federal plan poses a significant threat to mining and ranching.

“Normally, residents would be jubilant they have dodged the ESA bullet,” said Craig Rucker, executive director of the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow. “But what the administration is imposing on the region is every bit as bad as a listing under the ESA.

“From ranching and mining to oil and gas extraction, businesses throughout the region are going to be subject to Washington[, DC’s] whim,” Rucker said. “The greater sage grouse, which should be protected at the state and local level, is serving as a pretext for Washington handing itself more power.” 

Bonner R. Cohen, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.