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Federal district judge dismisses Idaho sage-grouse challenge

Cattle and Beef Industry News
Jan 16, 2017

A federal district court judge has dismissed a lawsuit brought by the State of Idaho against the federal government’s sage-grouse land-use plan amendments for Idaho and southwestern Montana. Without ruling on the merits of the challenge, U.S. District Court Judge for the District of Columbia Emmet Sullivan dismissed the case in the first week of January, saying the state did not have standing because it could not demonstrate “injury-in-fact.”

The challenge, brought in September 2015 by Idaho Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter, sought review not just of the Idaho land-use plan amendments, but of the entire Great Basin record of decision, which covers six states and about 126 million acres. The challenge cited violations of the Administrative Procedure Act, the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA), the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and other federal laws.

Specific to Idaho, the challenge described how the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), and U.S. Forest Service (USFS) had at first pursued “collaborative solutions tailored to state specific needs and conditions,” but at the last minute had abandoned that effort, instead pursuing a “concerted internal push for a uniform ‘national’ solution.”

The result, according to the state, was an action plan that ignored state input, was not adequately analyzed for economic and environmental impacts, and was not properly vetted by the public. The challenge pointed out that the “preferred alternative” (or action plan) released in the final environmental impact statement (EIS) was not even brought up in the draft EIS, and that it proposed restrictions on multiple uses that had not previously been considered.

For example, the surprise plan included a new concept: “sagebrush focal areas” covering 3.8 million acres in Idaho alone. These focal areas “are prioritized for management and conservation actions…including, but not limited to, review of livestock grazing permits/leases,” said the Idaho challenge.

In addition, this new plan created “an entirely new ‘net conservation gain’ mitigation standard,” and established buffer zones around sage-grouse breeding grounds that were not put forth in the draft EIS.

The final plan also “elevate[d] the secondary threats of livestock grazing and hardrock mining to primary threat status,” noted the Idaho challenge. This action “was not adequately analyzed, and is contrary to the requirement to use the best available science,” it read.

Furthermore, the challenge said, the federal government dismissed the FLPMA requirement that BLM land-use plans and amendments be consistent with state and local plans “to the maximum extent practicable.” Instead of giving weight to the governor’s consistency review, the BLM “provided in less than six business days nothing more than a 10-page cursory response,” and signed the Great Basin record of decision before even issuing a response to Otter’s consistency review appeal.

In response to Sullivan’s rejection of the challenge, Otter issued a statement to the Associated Press.

“I am extremely disappointed in the ruling…,” he said. “Now, the courts are telling Idaho and other western states that we have no recourse to this top-down approach—either administratively or through the judicial system.”

He said the state is weighing options moving forward, one of which is an appeal of the district court’s decision.

“I’m also looking forward to working with the new administration that will hopefully recognize the value of state sovereignty and our ability to effectively manage wildlife within our borders.”

Other states await decisions on separate sagegrouse plan challenges.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert filed a challenge in the U.S. District Court for Utah, and Nevada’s Attorney General Adam Laxalt joined several Nevada counties and industry groups in filing in the U.S. District Court for Nevada. — Theodora Johnson, WLJ Correspondent

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