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Endangered Species Act Draws New Attention in the West

Environmentalists in California and livestock ranchers throughout the West issued new documents this month on the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and developments on the appropriate role in protecting species such as the greater sage grouse.

Last Tuesday, the Washington, DC-based Public Lands Council, which represents grazing ranchers, released a report supporting its contention that livestock grazing is not in conflict with stepped up public-private plans to protect habitat throughout the West for the ground-dwelling bird (see Shale Daily, Sept. 22, 2015).

The council's study, which was also endorsed by the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, concluded that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) determined last year that the top threats to sage grouse were "rangeland wildfires, invasive weeds, and development pressures (oil/natural gas included), but not livestock grazing."

Meanwhile, last Tuesday, the Center for Biological Diversity and other local environmental groups filed notice of intent that they intend to sue the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), FWS, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other federal agencies for what they allege are outdated and invalid ESA approvals in the Los Padres National Forest in California.

The lawsuit alleges that expanded oil and gas operations -- including hydraulic fracturing (fracking) -- are allowed in some of the federal agencies' plans and "would further industrialize public lands, cause climate pollution, harm endangered species, and threaten to pollute water supplies amidst the state's historic drought."

They contend that approvals by the federal agencies to expand oil and gas drilling in the national forest were granted in 2005. Since then, there has been "an avalanche of new information" on how the regional drought in the West, climate change and "more extreme fracking technology" may damage endangered species and their habitats.

Last month, a federal judge ruled that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's (BLM) Bakersfield, CA, office "violated the law when it adopted a plan that would allow oil/gas operations across millions of acres of public lands, including those in the Los Padres without considering the environmental risks of fracking."

The Center for Biological Diversity, Los Padres ForestWatch, and Defenders of Wildlife will file the upcoming lawsuit as they did back in 2005 when they alleged the federal plan did not adequately assess the potential environmental impacts from oil and gas development on public lands.

Conversely, the Public Lands Council report is arguing that there is no undue impact from livestock grazing in the West on the sage grouse protection efforts. "Livestock grazing is not even in the top ten list of threats," the council report noted.

Nevertheless, the report argued that livestock grazing remains a focal point for agencies, including the BLM.

Given the decision last year not to ESA list the sage grouse, it is inappropriate to focus on grazing given that the bigger threats are fire and development, the council report stated.

The report concluded by urging the affected federal agencies -- BLM, USFS and FWS -- "to provide clear instruction at the field level that livestock grazing is not a significant threat."

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