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Environmentalists oppose off-roaders’ lawsuit over bird plan

March 19, 2019
FILE - This March 1, 2010, file photo released by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service shows a bistate distinct population of the greater sage grouse male strutting to attract a mate at a lek, or mating ground, near Bridgeport, Calif. Conservationists want a federal judge to allow them to join a legal battle over a type of sage grouse found only along the California-Nevada line in opposition to a lawsuit filed by off-road vehicle enthusiasts trying to overturn U.S. protections for the bird. Four national environmental groups filed the formal request to intervene in the bistate grouse case in U.S. District Court in Reno on Friday, March 15, 2019. (Jeannie Stafford/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via AP, File)

RENO, Nev. (AP) — Conservationists want to join a legal battle in opposition to off-road vehicle users who are trying to overturn U.S. protections for a type of imperiled bird found only along the California-Nevada line.

Four environmental groups filed the request to intervene in the case over the bistate grouse in U.S. District Court in Reno on Friday. That’s the same day the Trump administration finalized changes to federal land use plans that eased restrictions on energy companies across 11 Western states where the larger population of greater sage grouse lives.

The conservationists argue that those changes are one of the reasons they should be granted intervenor status for the bistate grouse, which they say is more at risk than the greater sage grouse. Scientists say as few as 5,000 of the chicken-sized, ground-dwelling birds remain.

The Fish and Wildlife Service in 2015 scrapped a proposal to list the bistate grouse as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, but a federal judge reinstated it last year.

“The Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service and FWS once made promises to conserve the bistate sage grouse and its habitat,” Steve Holmer, vice president of the American Bird Conservancy, said in the request to intervene, along with the Center for Biological Diversity, Western Watersheds Project and WildEarth Guardians.

The government’s failure to list the bird “is indicative of the agencies’ unwillingness to commit to conservation measures for the birds,” he said.

The California Four Wheel Drive Association and off-road groups in the Sierra Nevada and Nevada’s Pine Nut Mountains sued the Forest Service in December, arguing that a bistate protection plan enacted last year could increase fire danger across the bird’s rangeland habitat.

They say protection measures in the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest weren’t included among the alternatives subjected to scientific scrutiny and public comment as required by federal law.

The off-road groups say the Forest Service nearly doubled the size of buffer zones around bird breeding grounds, known as leks, to 4 miles (6.5 kilometers) between an initial draft and final guidelines on off-road travel.

It also extended the season when motorized traffic is banned through June 30, forcing the Sierra Trail Dogs Motorcycle and Recreation Club to postpone by a month a 250-mile (402-kilometer) motorcycle race typically done in mid-June.

Racing through high-desert sagebrush after June 30 “greatly increases fire risk and safety concerns due to greater heat and reduced moisture,” according to the lawsuit. “It is nearly impossible to design a viable route system in the project area ... that does not include a route passing within 4 miles of such leks.”

Paul Turcke, an Idaho-based lawyer for the off-roaders, said he didn’t anticipate opposing the environmentalists’ request but declined further comment.

A Forest Service spokeswoman said the agency doesn’t comment on pending litigation.

Patrick Donnelly, Nevada director of the Center for Biological Diversity, said bistate grouse “are teetering on the brink of extinction across much of their range.”

“Running a motorcycle race through this imperiled bird’s habitat during the lekking season would only add to threats that are pushing this population over the cliff,” said Laura Cunningham, California director for the Western Watersheds Project.

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