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Erik Molvar

Erik Molvar

Even as conservationists labor in the courts to win scientifically sound protections for sage grouse in new land-use plans, Gov. Matt Mead and the fossil fuel industry are lawyering up to preserve special-interest loopholes that assure continued habitat destruction.

Last month, Mead filed a motion to intervene against a conservationist lawsuit challenging the scientific integrity of 15 federal sage grouse plans across the West, arguing that the federal plans are “a model” that should be defended.

Over half the remaining sage grouse live on national forest and BLM public lands, so the federal sage grouse plans are key to the survival of the species. It is critical to get these plans right according to the science and apply protections that work for sage grouse. The conservationists’ legal challenge, which Mead is working to block, seeks to close the loopholes that allow excessive industrial destruction in the most sensitive habitats. If we succeed, the federal plans would remain in place while the weaknesses are corrected. We’re not trying to overturn the apple cart; we’re simply fixing the wheels so it rolls properly.

Conservationists are concentrating their legal firepower on discrepancies between federal sage grouse protections and the known science. Major flaws in the plans include much lower levels of habitat protection against oil and gas drilling in Wyoming, grossly inadequate priority habitat designations in Nevada (resulting in few and fragmented lands where significant protections apply), delays in applying livestock grazing improvements that are designed to provide adequate hiding cover for sage grouse, and exempting big power lines from complying with any habitat protections whatsoever. If Mead really wanted to support sage grouse conservation, he would be applauding the conservationists’ efforts instead of trying to sabotage them.

Meanwhile, industries and state governments have launched five lawsuits of their own against the same sage grouse plans. One of these suits, brought by the Wyoming Stockgrowers’ Association and the Coalition of Local Governments, was filed right here in Wyoming. While the conservationist lawsuit seeks to keep the plans in place while fixing the shortcomings, all five of the industry and state lawsuits would remove the sage grouse plans and their habitat protections entirely. The governor hasn’t lifted a finger to oppose these suits.

In parallel move, the oil and gas industry is suing to overturn the federal sage grouse plans in every state—except Wyoming.

Sage grouse protections are radically weaker in the Wyoming federal plans than in any other state. For example, industrial disturbance limits in Wyoming almost double the 3 percent limit that applies in every other state. Buffers to protect nesting habitat extend out only 0.6 mile from leks (the breeding and dancing sites that are also the hub of nesting activity), far short of the 4 miles recommended by scientists and the 3.1-mile buffer that applies in other states. This Wyoming-specific loophole leaves 98 percent of nesting habitat wide-open to development, even in the priority habitats that were designated to prioritize sage grouse conservation over other land uses.

These Wyoming loopholes make it easy for the oil industry to destroy sage grouse habitat and drive populations extinct even in areas where sage grouse protection is supposed to be the top priority. The oil industry, the main culprit in Wyoming’s sage grouse declines, got a free pass on protecting sage grouse in Wyoming, in the form of grouse protections so weak that they allow the same business-as-usual approach to drilling that caused sage grouse populations to crash in the first place. No wonder the oil industry isn’t suing over the Wyoming plan.

It is a bitter irony that the governor is now, in the name of defending federal sage grouse protections, spending state resources to block the one and only lawsuit that poses no threat to the federal sage grouse plans.

The fossil fuel bust and the state’s failure to diversify its economy has left Wyoming’s budget high and dry once again. The governor now plans to slash funding for substance abuse programs, suicide prevention, prison guards, the Department of Health, and the University of Wyoming. And yet somehow Wyoming has extra cash lying around to go running off on legal adventures so that a handful of special interests can get away with destroying more sensitive wildlife habitats? That’s an expensive hobby for a state whose basic services are being shortchanged.

Judging by actions rather than rhetoric, it has become obvious that the state of Wyoming’s real motive was never the restoration of healthy sage grouse populations, but instead to block adequate habitat protections and maintain the special interest loopholes that stand in the way of real sage grouse conservation. If the governor isn’t serious about helping our native wildlife recover, he should at least get out of the way of those who are.

Erik Molvar is a wildlife biologist and directs the Sagebrush Sea Campaign for WildEarth Guardians, a nonprofit conservation group.

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