Nevada counties cry foul over Sandoval-Jewell sage grouse deal

Obama/Reid appointed judge Miranda Du in Nevada is refusing to temporarily block new U.S. rules intended to protect the greater sage grouse.

RENO, Nev. (AP) – A federal judge in Nevada is refusing to temporarily block new U.S. rules intended to protect the greater sage grouse.

U.S. District Judge Miranda Du said Tuesday that nine Nevada counties challenging the regulations have failed to prove any irreparable harm that could be averted by immediately halting their implementation.

The lawsuit backed by Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt claims the restrictions on development were adopted illegally and would threaten the survival of miners, ranchers and rural economies across the West.

Du said opponents can argue their case at a trial, expected to begin early next year. But she says they’ve failed to meet the extraordinary standard required for a temporary injunction to halt the policy U.S. wildlife officials say is needed to ensure the hen-sized bird that lives in sage brush habitat doesn’t go extinct.

Judge Miranda Du in Nevada is postponing a decision on whether to block U.S. regulations protecting the greater sage grouse.

RENO, Nev. (AP) — A judge in Nevada is postponing a decision on whether to block U.S. regulations protecting the greater sage grouse.

U.S. District Judge Miranda Du says she’s not clear if the rules are really to blame for delays in construction of a rural water supply tank near Great Basin National Park along the Utah line.

She granted an extension so lawyers can supplement arguments they made last week during a two-day hearing in Reno.

That means Du won’t rule before Christmas on nine counties’ request for a temporary injunction freezing the regulations.

White Pine County officials say the new rules have thrown a monkey wrench in their plans to replace a leaking water tank posing a health and safety threat in Baker.

Du wants more details on other factors the government says are contributing to any possible delay.

Judge Mirand Du says injunction is unlikely in sage grouse suit

RENO (AP) — A federal judge says Nevada counties seeking a preliminary injunction to block new U.S. protections for the greater sage grouse must meet a high burden of proof to warrant such a drastic action.

U.S. District Judge Miranda Du said at the start of a Tuesday hearing in Reno she needs specific examples of projects that are being held up as a result of the government’s land planning amendments intended to conserve grouse habitat.

Du says she has no doubt about the seriousness of the concerns expressed by opponents of new restrictions on mining, livestock grazing and other development.

But without specific examples of activity that has been stopped by the regulations, she’s unlikely to grant an injunction on those rules before an upcoming trial on the merits of the case.

RENO, Nev. (AP) — Eight Nevada counties that want a court to block new U.S. protections for the greater sage grouse face a battle to show the move is necessary across thousands of square miles in the West, a federal judge said Tuesday.

U.S. District Judge Miranda Du said she knows the counties and two mining companies have serious concerns about new restrictions on mining, livestock grazing and other development adopted when the federal government decided in September not to list the bird as threatened or endangered.

The groups are suing the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management and asking for a temporary injunction to block the proposed rules before a trial. Du called that request a “drastic remedy.”

“The burden is pretty high on the plaintiffs,” Du said during a daylong hearing in Reno. “My concern is the motion, and the testimony so far, lacks specificity to determine the likelihood of irreparable harm, not the possibility of harm.”

Among other things, the lawsuit says the rules would prevent construction of a wind energy project that would bring $500 million to Elko County’s economy and has the potential to run mining companies and ranchers out of business.

Du said there is “plenty of uncertainty” about the potential effects of the land-use planning amendments that the two agencies adopted to protect the bird found in 11 Western states. But she said she needs evidence of actual projects being halted or delayed to meet the legal threshold that would warrant a temporary injunction.

“Without specific information, I am not going to be able to get there,” Du said.

The judge didn’t say if she intended to rule from the bench but suggested she would not do so when she told lawyers they could file briefs at the conclusion of the hearing. Without an emergency order, the case is unlikely to go to trial until next year.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Holly Vance said in a brief filed before Tuesday’s hearing that the counties and mining companies are misrepresenting and exaggerating the potential effects of the rules. She said they have not proved the restrictions will cause irreparable harm and are prematurely challenging the amendments, which offer guidelines but no specific decisions on individual grazing, mining or other federal permits.

Washoe County Planning Director Bill Whitney testified Tuesday that the county school district’s plans to acquire BLM land to build a new middle school in Sun Valley, north of Reno, have been put on hold as a result of the sage grouse protections, even though the county doesn’t believe there are grouse “any place near there.”

Eureka County Commission Chairman Julian Goicoechea said the protections are stifling new development in his county and prohibiting officials in neighboring White Pine County from obtaining a right-of-way necessary to build a new water tower in Baker.

“There is real harm occurring because of what is in the documents,” he testified.

Goicoechea, who serves as chairman of Nevada’s Sage Grouse Ecosystem Council, said it worked closely with federal officials to develop Nevada’s alternative protection plan but were blindsided by the final U.S. regulations.

“We did not want to be here today,” he said. “We wanted to work this out for the last three years. We tried. We were ignored.”

Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt, who ruffled the feathers of Gov. Brian Sandoval when he joined a lawsuit challenging sage grouse protections, won’t be allowed to argue Tuesday when a federal judge considers an injunction to block new public lands regulations

CARSON CITY — Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt, who ruffled the feathers of Gov. Brian Sandoval when he joined a lawsuit challenging sage grouse protections, won’t be allowed to argue Tuesday when a federal judge considers an injunction to block new public lands regulations, the judge ruled.

U.S. District Judge Miranda Du, in an order issued Friday, said only the original plaintiffs in the case — Elko and Eureka counties, Quantum Minerals LLC and Western Exploration LLC — will be permitted to present issues and arguments.

The AG’s office, seven other counties, another mining firm and a ranch joined the lawsuit after the original suit was filed on Sept. 23.

The first lawsuit was filed the day after Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would not list the greater sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act because of continuing efforts by states and federal agencies to protect the bird’s habitat.

Critics argue new regulations for public land use imposed as an alternative to a listing are just as onerous and would hurt rural economies by curtailing mining, ranching and energy development.

The attorney general’s office and other counties added their names to the suit when an amended complaint against the federal government was filed Oct. 22.

Du, in a two-page order limiting the scope of Tuesday’s hearing, said the “added” plaintiffs didn’t join in the motion for a preliminary injunction until last Thursday, less than a week away from the scheduled hearing.

“Unsurprisingly, the motion and related briefs do not address the claims of the additional plaintiffs, nor how the additional plaintiffs can satisfy their burden in seeking preliminary injunctive relief …,” Du wrote.

She also noted she agreed to hear the case on an expedited basis and that the added plaintiffs, including the AG’s office, had “ample time” to join in the request for an injunction “yet waited until the verge of the scheduled hearing” to file their motion with the court.

Laxalt and Sandoval, both Republicans, exchanged testy statements in late October when Laxalt announced he was joining the lawsuit.

Laxalt said the lawsuit was necessary to protect Nevada’s interests. Sandoval, who hasn’t ruled out litigation over the land regulations, argued that Laxalt’s lawsuit was premature and would undermine efforts to reach a resolution through on-going discussions with federal agencies.

Feds: Efforts to block sage grouse protection could backfire

RENO, Nev. (AP) — Attempts by rural Nevada counties, mining companies and others to block new U.S. policies intended to protect the greater sage grouse could backfire on the critics and ultimately force the reconsideration of a recent decision to keep the bird off the list of endangered species, federal land managers warn.

Justice Department lawyers representing three U.S. agencies say it took an unprecedented effort by officials in 11 western states from California to the Dakotas to persuade the Fish and Wildlife Service last month to reverse its 2010 conclusion that protection of the grouse was warranted under the Endangered Species Act.

The new finding was based on assumptions that added protections in the land-planning amendments being challenged will be carried out to ensure the grouse no longer is threatened with extinction, they said in a brief filed Friday in U.S. District Court in Reno.

Any injunction blocking implementation would “diminish the protections for sage grouse … undo four years of collaboration and could undermine FWS’ finding,” U.S. Attorney Daniel Bogden wrote.

U.S. District Judge Miranda Du has set a hearing for Nov. 12 in Reno to consider granting a preliminary injunction blocking the amendments.

Elko and Eureka counties and others filed the lawsuit on Sept. 23 — the day after Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced the listing decision. The Wyoming Stock Growers Association also is suing in federal court there, and Idaho’s governor has signed onto a separate lawsuit filed in federal court in Washington, D.C.

The Nevada lawsuit says the plans could run mining companies and ranchers out of business, block construction of a wind energy project that could bring Elko County $500 million and deny firefighters and law officers access to existing roads during emergencies.

Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt added his name to the lawsuit last week — over the objections of Gov. Brian Sandoval — along with Churchill, Humboldt, Lander, Lincoln, Pershing and Washoe counties in the state.

The government, in its first formal response, says the opponents misrepresent and exaggerate the potential effects. It says they have proven no irreparable harm and are challenging prematurely the planning-level amendments that offer guidelines but render no specific decisions on individual grazing, mining or other federal permits.

“They allege speculative injuries that will come to pass, if at all, only after future site-specific decisions are made,” Bogden wrote. He especially challenged claims the protections could restrict use of thousands of miles of existing roads and threaten public safety by inhibiting the travel of emergency responders.

“The amendments do not close any existing routes,” Bogden wrote. “But even if they did, the agencies’ regulations exempt emergency vehicles from OHV (off-highway vehicle) restrictions.”

The lawsuit accuses the government of “attempting a massive management change” for more than 20 million acres of public land in Nevada without proper environmental review — nearly 3 million acres where new mining claims are prohibited for at least two years and more than 16 million acres subject to what the lawsuit calls onerous travel restrictions.

The two-year freeze on some new mining claims was triggered by Jewell’s proposal last month to withdraw 10 million acres of public lands in Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming under the 1872 Mining Law, which was passed then to encourage the development of lands in the western U.S.

But Bogden said the proposed withdrawal is subject to “valid existing rights and has no immediate effect on mining operations.” It’s subject to public comment through Dec. 23.

Likewise, nothing in the guidelines themselves would prevent construction of the $500 million China Mountain Wind Energy Project in Elko County, he said. “Elko’s County’s speculation that ultimately it will not be approved is not an imminent injury,” Bogden said.

The lawsuit says the government inappropriately dismissed Elko County’s plan to increase livestock grazing as a way to bolster grouse habitat by slowing the growth of vegetation that fuel wildfires. But Bogden said there is “no scientific evidence to support a correlation between increased grazing and improved sage grouse habitat.”

Amodei offended by comments made by interior secretary on sage grouse, Republican Mark Amodei said the Obama administration is to blame for the conflict over the chicken-sized bird

Mark AmodeiLAS VEGAS — A Nevada congressman said he was offended when Interior Secretary Sally Jewell claimed some lawmakers in the West are playing politics over the protection of the sage grouse.

Republican Mark Amodei said the Obama administration is to blame for the conflict over the chicken-sized bird because Jewell and others should be doing more to keep it off the list of threatened or endangered species.

President Barack Obama signed a $1.1 trillion spending bill last week with a provision that barred money from being spent on rules to protect the greater sage grouse and two other subspecies.

Jewell said last week that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will continue collecting and analyzing data on sage grouse. A decision on whether protections are warranted will be reached by Sept. 30, Interior officials said.

Greater sage grouse range across 11 Western states and two Canadian provinces. Oil and gas drilling, wildfires, livestock grazing and other activities have consumed more than half the bird’s habitat during the past century.

The spending bill provision on sage grouse came after Western lawmakers and representatives of the oil and gas and agriculture industries said a threatened or endangered listing would devastate the region’s economy.

Jewell said it’s disappointing that some members of Congress are “more interested in political posturing than finding solutions to conserve the sagebrush landscape and the Western way of life.”

“Rather than helping the communities they profess to benefit, these members will only create uncertainty, encourage conflict and undermine the unprecedented progress that is happening throughout the West,” she said.

Amodei said Friday that he hopes Jewell will reconsider her “incendiary” communications strategy and try to cooperate with ranchers and others who are doing their best to maintain the bird’s habitat .

“There are a lot of great people working very hard on the sage hen issue in the West, and Interior needs to show some respect to them instead of defaulting to tired political agendas,” he said.