RENO, Nev. (AP) — Conservationists are suing the Bureau of Land Management to block the construction of fences in northern Nevada they say are intended to appease livestock ranchers at the risk of harming sage grouse and the drought-stricken federal rangeland.
The Western Watersheds Project filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Reno last week on the heels of a broader one it filed last month challenging the Obama administration's overall protection plan for the greater sage grouse across 10 western states.
Leaders of the Idaho-based group say the 3 miles of new fence planned near key grouse habitat flies in the face of BLM's own research showing the low-flying, hen-sized birds often die when they strike fences. Fence posts also provide perches for ravens that prey on grouse nests.
The suit says BLM rejected a similar proposal to build fences along the grazing allotment near Battle Mountain 200 miles northeast of Reno in 2014.
Pitched as an alternative to orders to remove cattle from the range, the ranchers said the fencing would keep the animals out of streams and key riparian areas. But BLM said at the time it was too costly and counterproductive to range health because fences promote growth of invasive weeds.
Ken Cole, the group's Idaho director, says BLM's reversal shows the sage-grouse planning process "is just a pile of paper written to avoid an Endangered Species Act listing."
"Nothing has changed on the ground, and most of the new protections from grazing won't be implemented for years to come," he said.
The BLM approved the fencing under a settlement agreement with ranchers last June to govern the land until the agency completes a formal assessment of range conditions next year.
The six permittees include Henry Filippini Jr., whose family has ranched in Nevada since the 1870s. Several ranchers rode across the country by horseback in 2014 to deliver a petition to the Obama administration in a protest they called the "Grass March."
The ranchers have paid their grazing fees for years so their situation differs from that of Cliven Bundy, a southern Nevada rancher who owes the government as much as a $1 million for trespassing, staged an armed standoff at his ranch two years ago and now faces federal charges.
But in both cases, BLM has been criticized for backing down and at least initially declining to enforce laws to avoid confrontation.
Paul Ruprecht, an Oregon-based lawyer for Western Watersheds, said the ranchers "have resisted the BLM's drought closures and instead bullied the BLM into considering a slew of proposals for new livestock infrastructure to justify more grazing on the badly degraded public lands."
"Rather than insist upon needed rest periods, the BLM has caved to rancher demands to allow their herds back onto the parched landscapes and enabled that use by approving the contested fencing," he said.
Nevada Cattlemen's Association President David Stix Jr. and Nevada Association of Counties Director Jeff Fontaine praised BLM for working cooperatively with the ranchers.
"Once again, Western Watersheds has proven through their obstructionist tactics that their only goal is to kill an industry at any cost," Stix said.
Interior Department spokeswoman Jessica Kershaw defended the administration policy that allows for continued land use and development "where it makes sense and doesn't conflict with high priority areas of the bird's habitat. "
"We continue to believe the plans are both balanced and effective — protecting key sage-grouse habitat and providing for sustainable development," she said.