Obama Backs Down From Chicken Conservation Plan Admid Lawsuits / Tom Reichner

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Andrew Follett Energy and Science Reporter

The Obama administration abandoned legal efforts to list the Lesser Prairie chicken as a threatened species Wednesday, shortly before two industry groups filed a lawsuit against a federal agency over conservation plans for the chicken-like Greater Sage Grouse.

A Texas court ruled that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service failed to make a proper evaluation of state conservation plans when the agency listed the Lesser Prairie chicken as threatened. This decision was followed by the Western Energy Alliance and North Dakota Petroleum Council filing a lawsuit Thursday challenging the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and U.S. Forest Service’s plan to protect the Grouse. The suit said the plan ignored sound science, will slow development and will cost jobs.

“The Obama administration’s decision [regarding the Lesser Prairie Chicken] not to appeal a district court ruling, throwing out the listing of the lesser prairie-chicken as a threatened species, is welcome and different news from this administration,” Republican Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe said in a press statement. “The court’s decision to vacate the listing is a win for Oklahoma and the four other state’s conservation agencies and our local and industry partners who have committed funding and other resources to implement a conservation plan without the federal government’s interference.

The Sage Grouse likely doesn’t need much help from the federal government, as it isn’t even listed as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Research from the Western Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies published in 2015 found that the species’ population had increased by 63 percent over the last two years to a total breeding population of 424,645.

“Western Energy Alliance is challenging plans with oil and natural gas restrictions that fail to conform to state plans, meaning plans in all producing states except for Wyoming. Before the federal sage grouse plans were finalized, oil and natural gas companies had implemented more than 770 specific protections for sage grouse, while reducing impact on the land by 70 percent with horizontal drilling and advanced hydraulic fracturing,” Kathleen Sgamma, vice president of government and public affairs at Western Energy Alliance, said in a press release. “In addition, states, counties, federal agencies, industries, ranchers, private landowners and conservation groups had come together to successfully protect the sage grouse and its habitat. As a result, sage grouse populations have not only rebounded but are stable over the long-term.”

The lawsuit states that the federal government has imposed a top-down and overly centralized plans to protect the grouse that is far less effective than state and private efforts. The Alliance estimates that the government’s most restrictive grouse protection plan would have killed more than 31,000 jobs and reduced annual economic output by $5.6 billion.

Sally Jewell, the secretary of interior, which runs the BLM, announced last September that the Greater Sage Grouse would not be listed under the Endangered Species Act, but simultaneously announced restrictions upon oil and natural gas development and other public land users to protect it. This led to a wave of  lawsuits from the states of Idaho and Utah as well as several of Nevada’s counties. Additionally, numerous industry groups like the American Exploration & Mining Association and the Wyoming Stock Growers Association have also filed lawsuits.

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