In a 2015 announcement widely hailed by Western states as a victory, the U.S. Department of the Interior unveiled a land-use plan to protect the greater sage grouse. The plan stopped a giant step short of placing the bird on the endangered species list—an outcome that many Utah lawmakers said would have been devastating to the state’s booming oil and gas drilling industries.
But as the announcement was made on a sagebrush-dotted wildlife preserve in Colorado, absent from the gaggle of governors and powerbrokers from states like Wyoming, Montana, Colorado and Nevada, was anyone from Utah.
Here in the Beehive State, the announcement was greeted with a spit in the eye to the federal government for daring to trounce on the Legislature’s efforts to manage the sage grouse on its own—an effort that by some measures was successful. This fact was not lost on the feds, who lauded Western states for protecting the bird in order to prevent it from being marked as endangered.
This pat on the back, and this victory, wasn’t enough for Utah, which on Feb. 4 filed a lawsuit against the various public agencies trying to protect the bird, including the Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Land Management.
In a news release, Gov. Gary Herbert said that in many ways, the 2,000 pages of new regulations from the federal government are more restrictive than the Endangered Species Act legislation. “This one-size-fits-all decision does not reflect the tremendous diversity in the greater sage grouse habitats across the West,” Herbert wrote. “Today’s action by the state will allow greater flexibility in protecting this unique species while allowing reasonable economic growth in rural Utah.”
The lawsuit seeks injunctive relief for the state, alleging that the federal government’s efforts to protect the bird thwarted the state’s own ambitious preservation plans.
In a news release, Attorney General Sean Reyes said the federal plan “has jeopardized conservation of the species and reasonable public use of the land in Utah.”
The sage grouse lawsuit is but one more effort by the state of Utah to attack the federal government over land management, and might well be a precursor to the state filing a separate suit against the federal government, demanding it hand over around 30 million acres of the public’s land.
A New Orleans-based legal team told the Legislature’s Commission for the Stewardship of Public Lands in December that it had a case against the feds and that it should initiate a $14 million lawsuit. Final say over this decision, though, rests with Herbert and Reyes.
Meanwhile, a contingent of Democratic lawmakers has demanded that the lawyers who cobbled the analyses together reveal the vulnerabilities in the state’s case, which was withheld from some members of the commission.
While Utah is clearly unafraid to spend taxpayer money on lawsuits, it also spent mightily to prevent the sage grouse from finding a place on the endangered species list. Five years ago, the U.S. Department of Fish & Wildlife Service said numbers of sage grouse had plummeted so low that it was a candidate for listing.
Utah and other Western states sprung into action. In the Beehive State, the sage grouse became a cause célèbre
for politicians who, in one breath would scoff at a plan to spend a few thousand dollars on clean air programs, and in another, would throw millions at sage grouse protection efforts. In these five years, Utah worked hand-in-hand with the agency often at the center of its anger, the BLM, to work on protection plans. In total, Utah spent $30 million to protect the bird—all in the hopes of keeping it off of the list.
In other words, Utah won. But Utah has painted itself a sour winner because it sees in the federal sage grouse plan a more restrictive diet of land use than it would impose.
Utah’s sage grouse plan protected half-mile swathes of land surrounding the bird’s mating areas, known as “leks.” Under the federal plan, all of Utah’s 3.3 million acres of sage grouse habitat—far less property than in neighboring states—will be protected from surface disturbances.
While Herbert stamped his feet in September rather than celebrate with his fellow governors, BLM officials pointed out that if the sage grouse had been listed, Utah would have lost all control over state, private and trust lands peppered with habitat.
As Utah leaders sue the federal government with Utah taxpayer money, the distance between the Beehive State and its neighbors seems to be growing.
After the sage grouse announcement in September, Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, a Republican, said the federal government’s plan was the “result of Wyoming and other Western states taking a proactive approach to the greater sage grouse—working with industry, agriculture and conservation groups and the federal government.”
In Herbert’s statement announcing the lawsuit, the governor trumpeted the great job that Utah did to manage the sage grouse population, and that he continues to believe that “Utah is better positioned to manage our sage-rouse population than the federal government.”
Disguised beneath Herbert’s rhetoric, though, is a trend that is costing the state boatloads of money. It is the notion that Utah is the best at everything, and that it needs no one else to help it along. Of course, the state continues to accept billions of dollars in federal monies for an array of programs. But when it comes to controversial matters like health care and land management—lighting rods that many politicians use to enshrine their careers—Utah tirelessly insists that it can do just about everything better than the United States of America.
In the case of health care, or Medicaid expansion, polls show the majority of Utahns want expanded services while lawmakers have failed to act. And on land management—especially when it comes to the sage grouse—Utah is starting to take on many of the traits that it claims are so boundless with the federal government: Uncooperative, unwilling to listen and rabidly litigious.