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Court rejects Gov. Otter’s challenge to Obama sage grouse rules

A sage grouse rooster mounts a hen for breeding on a lek, the "dancing grounds" where grouse come to mate, in the Curlew National Grasslands, south of Rockland, Idaho. (Bill Schaefer / The Idaho State Journal via AP)
A sage grouse rooster mounts a hen for breeding on a lek, the "dancing grounds" where grouse come to mate, in the Curlew National Grasslands, south of Rockland, Idaho. (Bill Schaefer / The Idaho State Journal via AP)

UPDATED 1:45 P.M. with more details from Associated Press in Boise.

THREATENED SPECIES -- A judge has rejected Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter’s lawsuit contending the Obama administration acted illegally by imposing federal land-use restrictions intended to protect the sage grouse in Idaho and southwestern Montana.

U.S. District Court Judge Emmet G. Sullivan in dismissing the lawsuit Thursday didn’t rule on the merits of the claims but said Otter lacked standing because the state didn’t prove it had been injured.

Because Otter lacked standing, the court said it didn’t have jurisdiction and dismissed the lawsuit, the Associated Press reports.

“The Court finds plaintiffs’ legal support for standing based on injury to state sovereignty to be unpersuasive,” Sullivan wrote in the 18-page ruling.

Otter has long complained that Idaho worked with federal agencies to come up with a sage grouse plan only to have Idaho’s plan ignored.

“I am extremely disappointed in the ruling from Judge Sullivan in Washington, D.C.,” Otter said in a statement to The Associated Press on Friday. “Now, the courts are telling Idaho and other western states that we have no recourse to this top-down approach – either administratively or through the judicial system.”

Otter’s lawsuit was among a number of lawsuits filed in September 2015 after federal officials opted not to list sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act but announced federal land-use restrictions.

Environmental groups later filed lawsuits contending the restrictions in 11 Western states designed to protect sage grouse habitat didn’t go far enough.

Otter’s lawsuit named Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and her agency as defendants. The Wilderness Society intervened on the side of the federal government.

“This is the first ruling on a lot of these challenges,” said Nada Culver, senior attorney for The Wilderness Society. “I hope this sends a strong message. It’s time to make these plans work for everybody.”

Sage grouse are ground-dwelling, chicken-sized birds found in 11 Western states, where between 200,000 to 500,000 remain, down from a peak population of about 16 million. The males are known for their strutting courtship ritual on breeding grounds called leks, and produce a bubble-type sound from a pair of inflated air sacks on their necks.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will review the bird’s listing status within five years.

Sullivan in his ruling also rejected Otter’s argument that “spillover” effects of the federal government’s plan would have adverse results on state and private lands. Idaho, among the examples it included, said it could lose revenue from oil and gas production on federal land that was made off limits due to it being in important sage grouse habitat.

But Sullivan said Idaho failed “to provide factual support demonstrating any concrete and particularized, and actual or imminent injury.”

Otter said the state hadn’t yet decided its next move.

“We are still weighing our options moving forward, one of which is an appeal of the district court’s decision,” Otter said, noting things could also change when President-elect Donald Trump takes office later this month. “I’m also looking forward to working with the new administration that will hopefully recognize the value of state sovereignty and our ability to effectively manage wildlife within our borders.”

On Thursday, U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell told wildland firefighters in Boise that her 2015 secretarial order for a new wildfire-fighting plan to protect a wide swath of sagebrush country in the West that supports cattle ranching and is home to imperiled sage grouse will likely continue after the Obama administration ends.

Rich Landers
Rich Landers joined The Spokesman-Review in 1977. He is the Outdoors editor for the Sports Department writing and photographing stories about hiking, hunting, fishing, boating, conservation, nature and wildlife and related topics.

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