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Wyoming to Defend Federal Agencies in Lawsuit Against Sage Grouse Plan

Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead on Thursday directed his state's attorney general to intervene in support of the federal agencies targeted by a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Idaho by four environmental groups that don't like the greater sage grouse state-federal protection strategy hammered out last year (see Daily GPISept. 22, 2015).

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and U.S. Forest Service (USFS) were the targets of a lawsuit filed last Wednesday by a coalition of environmental groups, alleging the bipartisan, state-federal-industry-based approach fails to protect the ground-based birds, which until last September's action were candidates for the Endangered Species Act (ESA) listing.

Mead pointed out that the US. Fish and Wildlife Service earlier determined that Wyoming has had a voluntary protection effort ongoing for eight years, and it "has demonstrated its conservation value by protecting areas identified as important to sage ground conservation."

Asserting that the state effort has proven effective, Mead said the lawsuit "is another indication that the ESA needs to be fixed [when] successful conservation efforts are challenged instead of celebrated."

A senior scientist for the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the four groups filing the lawsuit, called the sage grouse plans "an example of politics trumping science while the extinction of a unique population of sage grouse hangs in the balance."

Last August before the state-federal plans were released, an updated census of sage grouse by the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies for the USFWS reportedly showed favorable upward trends in their populations (see Daily GPIAug. 6, 2015). The study updated earlier studies from 1965 until now that have tracked male sage grouse in their mating groupings, or leks.

Mead, as the current chair of the Western Governors' Association (WGA), spoke last Wednesday at a WGA workshop in Denver on his initiative to develop reforms for the ESA. He was joined by Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, and they both praised Interior Secretary Sally Jewell for her work in making the sage grouse plan a reality.

Mead said the nation needs to do a better job of getting more species off the ESA "endangered" list instead of adding more, citing the statistic that since the federal act was passed in 1973, 2,308 species have been listed, but only 33 have been removed. Last year there were still more than 2,000 species listed, and in the past seven months 25 have been added and only three removed, he said.

"If you care about species and habitat, I think you recognize we can do better," Mead said. "Fundamentally, we need to do a better job of recovering species," he told the WGA audience, adding that the sage grouse approach is an example of a recent success.

Too often, Mead said, "lawyers are winning on the ESA" because despite government and industry coming together to recover species, their efforts are often met by lawsuits. Thus, he said to get more recoveries of species that will stick reforms are needed in the ESA, and that is what he hopes to come up with from his WGA initiative. He said he hopes it develops proposed changes that can be taken to Congress.

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