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Environmental groups aim to intervene in sage grouse lawsuit

December 23, 2019 GMT
FILE - In this April 22, 2015, file photo, a male sage grouse struts in the early morning hours outside Baggs, Wyo. Two environmental groups concerned the Trump administration won't defend an Obama administration-era policy on sage grouse protections are seeking to intervene in a lawsuit filed by Idaho ranchers. The National Audubon Society and The Wilderness Society on Friday, Dec. 20, 2019, filed documents in U.S. District Court. The initial lawsuit was filed in 2018 by Oakley-based brothers Douglas, Don and David Pickett. Idaho intervened on the ranchers' side a few months later. The lawsuit alleges the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service failed to submit the rules to Congress for review.(Dan Cepeda /The Casper Star-Tribune via AP, File)
FILE - In this April 22, 2015, file photo, a male sage grouse struts in the early morning hours outside Baggs, Wyo. Two environmental groups concerned the Trump administration won't defend an Obama administration-era policy on sage grouse protections are seeking to intervene in a lawsuit filed by Idaho ranchers. The National Audubon Society and The Wilderness Society on Friday, Dec. 20, 2019, filed documents in U.S. District Court. The initial lawsuit was filed in 2018 by Oakley-based brothers Douglas, Don and David Pickett. Idaho intervened on the ranchers' side a few months later. The lawsuit alleges the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service failed to submit the rules to Congress for review.(Dan Cepeda /The Casper Star-Tribune via AP, File)

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Two environmental groups concerned the Trump administration won’t defend an Obama administration-era policy on sage grouse protections are seeking to intervene in a lawsuit filed by Idaho ranchers.

The National Audubon Society and The Wilderness Society filed documents Friday in U.S. District Court.

The initial lawsuit was filed in 2018 by brothers Douglas, Don and David Pickett, who own Tugaw ranch in south-central Idaho. Idaho intervened on the ranchers’ side a few months later.

The lawsuit contends the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service failed to submit the 2015 rules to Congress for review.

The Trump administration, Idaho and the ranchers agreed to put the case on hold while other lawsuits involving sage grouse protections played out.

One of those had a key ruling in October when a U.S. judge halted a Trump administration plan to ease the 2015 land-use restrictions in Idaho and six other Western states that protect sage grouse. The Trump administration, Idaho and Wyoming are appealing that ruling.

The environmental groups said that ruling put the Idaho ranchers’ lawsuit back in play, which could have wide-ranging ramifications for sage grouse in the U.S. West.

“We want to see a strong defense of the (2015) plans and the sage-grouse against this spurious challenge, and the best way to do that is to do it ourselves,” said Nada Culver of the National Audubon Society.

The U.S. Department of Justice, which defends federal agencies in lawsuits, didn’t respond to an inquiry from The Associated Press.

Idaho Republican Gov. Brad Little became a participant in the lawsuit after he replaced former Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter, also a Republican, in January. Little’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment from the AP.

Sage grouse are found in 11 Western states. They’re chicken-sized, ground-dwelling birds considered an indicator species for the health of vast sagebrush landscapes in the U.S. West that support some 350 species of wildlife. The males are known for performing an elaborate ritual that includes making balloon-like sounds with two air sacks on their necks.

Between 200,000 and 500,000 sage grouse remain in 11 Western states, down from a peak population of about 16 million. Experts generally attribute the decline to road construction, development and oil and gas leasing.

The 2015 plans included last-minute restrictions in key sage grouse habitat intended to prevent the bird from being listed under the Endangered Species Act. Such a listing could have brought increased restrictions to grazing, energy development and other activities across some 270,000 square miles (700,000 square kilometers).

With the plan in place, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service opted not to list sage grouse. That plan is the subject of the lawsuit brought by the Idaho ranchers.

“The Trump administration has made clear that it is rolling back the very environmental protections at stake in this case,” said Anne Harkavy of Democracy Forward, a legal firm representing the environmental groups. “That’s why we cannot rely on the Trump administration to represent the public interest.”