Idaho, Utah seek to intervene in Trump drilling plan lawsuit

The greater sage-grouse has ruffled feathers in recent years as populations have declined. New management proposals for federal sagebrush landscapes aim to keep the birds healthy, while preserving traditional land uses. Photo credit U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Two states are seeking to intervene on the side of the federal government after four conservation groups asked a judge to immediately halt drilling, mining and other activities to protect habitat for a ground-dwelling bird in seven Western states.

Idaho and Utah filed documents in U.S. District Court late last week seeking to defend a plan put forward by President Donald Trump in mid-March.

The conservation groups in a supplemental lawsuit filed in late March against the Interior Department, U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service say the plan weakens an earlier version put forward by the Barack Obama administration in 2015. The groups also sued in 2016 contending the Obama plan didn’t do enough to protect sage grouse — a chicken-sized bird that relies on sagebrush.

The groups say the plan put forward by Trump weakens protections further. Last week, they asked a judge to block the Trump administration plan altogether in Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, Nevada, California and Oregon.

Idaho officials have long argued that the plan the state put forward in 2015 was significantly altered at the last minute by the Obama administration, which added new protections to key sage grouse areas.

“A diverse set of stakeholders and experts worked tirelessly to develop a state plan that meets the needs of sage grouse in Idaho,” Idaho Republican Gov. Brad Little said in a statement Friday. “I am confident the court will recognize that our plan strikes the appropriate balance between conservation and multiple-use.”

The 2015 sage grouse plans are widely considered to have stopped the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from listing sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act. There are concerns that further declines in sage grouse populations could cause the bird to again be considered for federal protections.

Millions of sage grouse once roamed the West, but development, livestock grazing and wildfires have reduced the bird’s population to fewer than 500,000. Most of the bird’s habitat — sagebrush steppe — is on land administered by the BLM. The birds are found in 11 states from the Dakotas to California.

The birds are known for an elaborate mating ritual in which males fan their tails and puff out yellow air sacs in their chests to make a bubble-type sound as they strut around breeding grounds known as leks.

Utah Republican Gov. Gary Herbert’s office didn’t immediately respond to inquiries from The Associated Press on Monday.

Herbert has previously said the Trump administration’s plan will complement the state’s efforts to manage sage grouse in Utah.

Meanwhile in Nevada, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management on Thursday opened a one-month comment period on plans to lease about 25 square miles (65 square kilometers) to oil and gas drilling in a remote northeastern part of the state that’s home to sage grouse. The agency says plans to lease land in the West for drilling are part of a Trump administration effort to promote American energy independence.

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