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Published July 01, 2011, 01:56 PM

Judge rejects gov’t bid to delay sage grouse suit

BILLINGS, Mont. — A federal judge has rejected the government’s attempt to delay a lawsuit seeking protections for imperiled sage grouse across 11 Western states in a case with potentially sweeping implications for grazing, oil and gas drilling, and residential construction.

BILLINGS, Mont. — A federal judge has rejected the government’s attempt to delay a lawsuit seeking protections for imperiled sage grouse across 11 Western states in a case with potentially sweeping implications for grazing, oil and gas drilling, and residential construction.

With the order from Judge B. Lynn Winmill in Idaho, the sage grouse case is shaping up as an early test of a pending Obama administration proposal to settle endangered species claims on hundreds of plants and animals.

Among the most pivotal of those species is the greater sage grouse, a ground-dwelling game bird that has lost half its once-vast Western range to development.

The administration has been seeking to prolong until 2015 its decision on whether grouse should receive Endangered Species Act protections. That’s under a pending settlement between the Interior Department and two wildlife advocacy groups in a separate federal court case.

But Winmill said in his late Thursday ruling that a third group, Western Watersheds Project, can proceed with its lawsuit calling for more immediate measures to stop the bird’s decline.

Wildlife officials said in 2010 that sage grouse deserved protections but other species took priority, relegating the birds to a long list of “candidates” for protection.

“We think we can do better than 2015,” said Tom Woodbury, the group’s Montana director. “The scientists all agree that it’s in danger of extinction and that things are only getting worse.”

By putting off a decision on whether more protections are needed, administration officials want to avoid a threatened or endangered listing for the bird that could lead to prohibitions on grazing, limits to future drilling and possibly curbs on residential and commercial construction.

The government wants to use the next several years to boost struggling populations of the chicken-sized bird. During the last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has committed more than $70 million to conserve sagebrush habitat and take other steps to protect the grouse.

Known for their elaborate mating display, the birds are found in Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, South Dakota, North Dakota Nevada, Utah, Washington, Oregon, eastern California, Nevada, Utah, western Colorado and the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan.

The government’s proposed settlement with the two advocacy groups — the Center for Biological Diversity and WildEarth Guardians — would set timetables for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to consider whether more protections are needed for sage grouse and 250 other plant and animal species.

Some of those have been waiting on the candidates list more than three decades for a decision.

Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Vanessa Kaufmann declined to comment on the implications of the sage grouse case for the broader settlement.

WildEarth Guardians said the 2015 date marks a concession her group had to make so the government would act on the other species eligible for greater protection. Some of those have been waiting more than three decades for decision.

“We very much wanted (sage grouse) listed, but looking at the whole list there are some candidates facing extinction right now,” she said. “There are tough choices involved.”

The settlement still needs court approval. Negotiations with the Center for Biological Diversity are continuing. A representative of the group, Noah Greenwald, said he could not comment because of those discussions.

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