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Wyoming Stock Growers file legal challenge to fed's sage grouse plan

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The Wyoming Stock Growers Association has filed a legal challenge to a series of recently completed federal sage grouse plans, arguing they overstep the limits of the government's authority and hamper ranchers' ability to run their operations effectively.

The plans fail to distinguish improper grazing, define disruptive activities or address ranchers who voluntarily relinquish grazing permits, the group argued in a release. 

"The arbitrary natures (sic) of the grazing prescriptions in these plan amendments and the uncertainty that will accompany their implementation will influence rancher's (sic) management decisions in ways that can prove detrimental to both livestock and sage grouse," said WSGA President Niels Hansen.

The stock growers' petition for review, filed Wednesday in the U.S. District Court of Wyoming, is the first challenge to the federal government's strategy to conserve the grouse in Wyoming.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forestry Service amended a total of nine land management plans in the Cowboy State to incorporate new grouse conservation measures. The overhaul came as part of the government's attempt to keep the bird off the endangered species list.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced last month sage grouse did not warrant endangered species' protections, saying conservation efforts already in place were sufficient to protect the bird. 

Energy companies have largely praised the Wyoming aspects of the federal strategy, though they have criticized the federal government's efforts in other states. 

Environmental groups have signaled they may challenge the government's decision not to list the sage grouse as an endangered species. Conservation efforts have not gone far enough, they argue.

The stock growers' lawsuit is particularly notable as it places the group in opposition to a strategy endorsed by Gov. Matt Mead. The governor has praised the federal approach to conserving the species, noting it closely hues to conservation efforts Wyoming has pursued. 

The strategy focuses in large part on curtailing habitat loss due to energy development, limiting operations around breeding and nesting sites, imposing seasonal work restrictions and requiring mitigation plans to minimize the impacts of mining and drilling.

A Mead spokesman said the governor is reviewing the lawsuit, adding, "Gov. Mead believes the not warranted decision is a significant success for Wyoming wildlife, industry, agriculture and others."

The stock growers applauded Mead's efforts, saying the changes pushed for by the governor in the draft strategy led to improvements in the final version. 

But the ranchers argued the federal government still stopped short of adopting grazing provisions incorporated in Wyoming's grouse plan. 

"Our objections were summarily dismissed by the agencies," WSGA Executive Vice President Jim Magagna said in a statement. 

A U.S. Bureau of Land Management spokeswoman declined comment, saying the bureau does not comment on pending litigation. 

The amended land management plans will direct sage grouse conservation efforts on 10.9 million federal acres in Wyoming. 

The changes were part of a wider overhaul of federal land management plans to incorporate new strategies to protect the bird. In all, 98 federal land management plans were updated across 10 western states. 

Follow energy reporter Benjamin Storrow on Twitter @bstorrow


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