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Colorado Sues Feds Over Gunnison Sage Grouse Listing

As it signaled late last year it would do, Colorado on Thursday filed a lawsuit against federal officials over the "threatened' designation given the Gunnison sage grouse, despite the state's work with federal agencies to avoid the listing.

Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman said she was "looking forward to our day in court" after filing a lawsuit against U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) Director Dan Ashe and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell. She said the action is in defense of Colorado's $40 million effort to protect the Gunnison, which is limited to habitat in southwest Colorado and southeast Utah.

Last November, the Obama administration declared as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) the Gunnison sage grouse, kicking off the prospect of Thursday's legal challenges in response to the potential problems for oil and natural gas development in parts of Utah and Colorado (see Daily GPI, Nov. 13, 2014).

Filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado, the lawsuit cites two alleged violations of the ESA -- the listing designation and improper designation of the habitat -- and an alleged violation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

"NEPA requires that FWS take a hard look at the direct and indirect environmental impacts of its decision to designate critical habitat for the Gunnison sage grouse," the Colorado said, adding that the federal agency was required to consider a wide range of alternatives, including state mitigation measures.

FWS guidance requires that its environmental assessment include the proposed action, a no-action alternative, and reasonable alternatives that satisfy the purpose and need of the proposed action, the lawsuit said.

“[The FWS] decision to study only the proposed action and a no-action alternatives resulted in a failure to take a hard look at the impacts of the proposed action. That violated NEPA, and is arbitrary and capricious and an abuse of discretion in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act.”

Hickenlooper has stressed for year that the FWS ignored "the extraordinary efforts over the last two decades by the state, local governments, business leaders and environmentalists to protect the Gunnison sage grouse and its habitat."

Separately on Thursday, a report the U.S. Agriculture Department's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) revealed that over the past five years, the federal unit has spent $296 million on programs partnering private-sector rancher/landowners with other landowners to restore 4.4 million acres.

The agriculture department also announced it was preparing to spend $200 million during the next four years to expand the restoration partnerships with working ranches and farms covering hundreds of thousands of acres making up the 11-state sage grouse western range.

NRCS's report, "Outcomes in Conservation: the Sage Grouse Initiative," noted that in 2010 the conservation unit created an initiative to protect the sage grouse. With its added contributions this year, the federal initiative's total investment will reach about $751 million directed at boosting sage grouse conservation on private lands.

Under the initiative some eight million acres of habitat will have been conserved by 2018. "It is an exciting time for sage grouse conservation and NRCS is proud to provide increased certainty for additional conservation through the life of the 2014 farm bill in Congress," the report said.

Late last month, governors of western states asked for clarification from Interior Secretary Jewell on the federal agency's efforts to save the greater sage grouse in the face of congressional action to delay a federal listing decision on the bird (see Shale Daily, Jan. 20).

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