BILLINGS, Mont. – A federal judge has rejected the government's attempt to delay a lawsuit seeking protections for imperiled sage grouse across the West in a case with sweeping implications for grazing, oil and gas drilling, and residential construction.
With the order from Judge B. Lynn Winmill in Idaho, the 11-state sage grouse case is shaping up as an early test of an Obama administration proposal to settle endangered species claims on hundreds of plants and animals.
Among the most pivotal of those species is the greater sage grouse, a ground-dwelling game bird that has lost half of its once-vast range and also suffered from the deadly West Nile virus.
The Interior Department wants to prolong until 2015 its decision on whether the birds should receive Endangered Species Act protections. That's under a pending settlement with two wildlife advocacy groups in a separate federal court case in Washington, D.C.
However, Winmill said in his late Thursday ruling that a third group, Western Watersheds Project, can proceed with its lawsuit calling for more immediate measures to stop the bird's decline. Winmill turned down the government's request to suspend the case.
Federal officials decided in 2010 that sage grouse deserved protections. But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said other species took priority, relegating the birds to a long list of "candidates" for protection.
"We think we can do better than 2015," said Tom Woodbury, Western Watersheds' Montana director. "The scientists all agree that it's in danger of extinction and that things are only getting worse."
By putting off the decision on whether to give more protections, administration officials are buying time to avoid a threatened or endangered listing that could lead to prohibitions on grazing, limits to future drilling and possibly curbs on residential and commercial construction.
The government would use the next several years to boost struggling populations of the bird. During the last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has committed more than $70 million to conserve sagebrush landscapes and take other steps to protect grouse.
A lawyer for several farming groups attempting to intervene in the Idaho case said hitting industries with new restrictions to help the birds even more would be "the last thing we need with this economy."
"It really seems the intent of the environmental groups is to bring on a full listing of the species, which would result in grazing restrictions throughout the region," said Brandon Middleton with the Pacific Legal Foundation in Sacramento, Calif.
A chicken-sized bird known for its elaborate mating display, the greater sage grouse is found in Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, South Dakota, North Dakota Nevada, Utah, Washington, Oregon, eastern California, Nevada, Utah, western Colorado.
The Obama administration's proposed settlement with the two wildlife advocacy groups — the Center for Biological Diversity and WildEarth Guardians — would set timetables for the Fish and Wildlife Service to consider whether more protections are needed for sage grouse and 250 other plant and animal species. It still needs court approval.
Some of the species have been waiting on the candidate species list more than three decades for a decision.
Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Vanessa Kaufmann declined to comment on the implications of the sage grouse case for the broader settlement.
The Center for Biological Diversity and WildEarth Guardians also are plaintiffs in the sage grouse case, although WildEarth Guardians has agreed to work with the government to dismiss the lawsuit.
The group's Nicole Rosmarino said a delay in the sage grouse decision was a concession her group had to make for the government to act on other species in need of protection.
"We very much wanted (sage grouse) listed, but looking at the whole list there are some candidates facing extinction right now," Rosmarino said. "There are tough choices involved."
The rift among the plaintiffs is similar to a recent court dispute over gray wolves. The Center for Biological Diversity was among groups that agreed to a government deal to take the predators off the endangered list, but WildEarth Guardians, Western Watersheds and others opposed the deal.
U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy in Missoula rejected the wolf settlement citing in part objections from the dissenting groups. Congress later stepped in and stripped the species of protection through legislation inserted into a federal budget bill by Western lawmakers.
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