Environmental groups want in on fight over sage grouse rules

RENO — Three national environmental organizations want to wade into a legal battle in Nevada over new federal regulations intended to protect the greater sage grouse.

U.S. District Judge Miranda Du has scheduled a hearing in Reno Tuesday to consider whether to grant a temporary injunction sought by eight Nevada counties and others to block the rules.

The Wilderness Society, National Wildlife Federation and mining watchdog group Earthworks filed a motion late last week seeking formal intervener status in the case.

That would allow them a seat at the table to make their own arguments along with Justice Department lawyers and attorneys for the opponents.

The conservation groups agree with the government’s argument that blocking the regulations could force reconsideration of a recent decision denying the bird protection under the Endangered Species Act. But they say they have many other interests that the government cannot adequately represent.

The land use planning amendments at issue apply specifically to Nevada, Idaho, Oregon, Utah, northeast California and southwest Montana, but they carry ramifications for all 11 western states that are home to the imperiled bird.

Opponents say the new rules would prevent construction of a wind energy project that would bring $500 million to Elko County’s economy and has the potential to run mining companies and ranchers out of business.

Justice Department lawyers representing three government agencies warn that blocking implementation of the regulations could force Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to reconsider her decision in September to keep the bird off the U.S. list of threatened and endangered species.

Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt — over the objections of Gov. Brian Sandoval — earlier added his name to the list of plaintiffs in the suit originally filed by Elko and Eureka counties in September. But he has not asked for the formal intervener status to date, so will not be allowed to argue the case.

Julie Cavanaugh-Bill, an Elko lawyer for the conservation groups, acknowledged in a motion filed Thursday that “at a minimum, the challenged agency actions represent a marked improvement in public land management in the West.”

She said the groups long have advocated “stronger and more comprehensive protections” for the grouse and hundreds of other species of fish and wildlife dependent on the same sage brush ecosystem.

Congress has directed the Bureau of Land Management to manage its lands in concert with an “enormously complicated” balancing act that conforms to BLM’s multiple use mandate, she said. She said that’s a much broader view than that of the conservation groups.

Cavanaugh-Bill said the law makes it clear intervener status is warranted when the government is charged with serving “two distinct interests ... related but not identical.”

Federal judges in Nevada have agreed in the past to allow such a three-pronged approach in ongoing lawsuits over protection of the threatened bull trout in Elko County, and management of wild horses across the state.


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