Two environmentalist groups filed suit Tuesday seeking stronger protection for a bird found only in Colorado and Utah, reaching that legal step ahead of state officials who counter the federal government already has gone too far.
The Center for Biological Diversity and the Western Watersheds Project said in court papers that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service should go back and produce an "adequate finding" on the status of the Gunnison sage grouse, whose habitat has been encroached on by humans. They say that when the agency listed the bird known for its elaborate mating dance as threatened last year rather than endangered, it "failed to acknowledge the dire straits that the species is in right now, compromising the ability of conservation managers to ensure its survival and long-term recovery."
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In an email Tuesday, a Fish and Wildlife spokesman said the agency does not comment on matters involving litigation.
About 5,000 Gunnison grouse remain, only in Colorado and Utah. The threatened designation could result in restrictions on oil and gas drilling, agriculture, recreational and other land uses.
In an interview Tuesday, John Harja of Utah's Public Lands Policy Coordination Office said his state saw no need for the bird to be listed and had filed a notice of intent to sue to challenge the "threatened" designation. Utah's formal filing could come within weeks, or the state could join Colorado in a lawsuit it has given notice it would file, Harja said.
State officials say Fish and Wildlife did not give enough credit to joint conservation efforts by environmentalists, and owners and users of the lands that are the birds' habitat. Amanda Rodewald, a conservation scientist at Cornell University, said the joint efforts can be effective, but some environmentalists worry flexibility will be abused.
Rodewald said both camps will be watching litigation closely, in part to see how it might influence policy on the more common greater sage grouse. The two grouses are related, but the greater sage grouse is at the center of a broader debate that involves 11 Western states.
"Everyone is thinking ahead," Rodewald said.