For the past five years, the energy industry, Utah political leaders and county commissioners have implored the feds to not list the greater sage grouse as an endangered or threatened species, arguing resulting protections would smother rural economic development and put an end to drilling in sagebrush country.
They got their wish, but it came with a poison pill that could perpetuate Utah's sage-grouse conservation controversy for years to come. Last month, the U.S. Department of the Interior approved land-use management plan revisions that, the feds say, balance energy and mineral development with the recovery of the once plentiful ground-nesting bird across 11 Western states.
Other states — with a lot more at stake — endorsed the plans, hailing them as the fruit of an unprecedented collaboration.
Utah officials, however, say the Bureau of Land Management disregarded a workable state conservation plan and ignored the most reliable science to justify "draconian and unnecessary" restrictions on energy development, including coal mining.
The federal sage grouse rules will make surface mining development impossible in areas designated as priority grouse habitat, the state believes, and won't do anything to protect Utah's sage grouse populations, either.
Utah contends in a formal protest that, for example, the BLM plan jeopardizes the proposed 3,500-acre expansion of the Alton coal mine in Kane County.
So while Wyoming and other states are crowing about collaboration and gains for grouse and economic growth, Utah's not giving up its years-long fight against federal meddling in the state's shrinking sage grouse population and growing energy development.
Utah recently renewed its $2 million a year contract with a lobbyist who in 2014 began exploring legal options and ways to persuade Congress to pass now-moot legislation that would delay a listing decision.
At the very least, Utah will ask the feds to conduct a supplemental Environmental Impact Statement on the conservation plan.
And Utah Gov. Gary Herbert has vowed to seek relief in Congress and the courts if necessary.
A Western village divided • Last month, a beaming Interior Secretary Sally Jewell was flanked by governors from the Western states that matter the most for sage grouse as she announced the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concluded the bird does not warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act.
"The plans differ to reflect local lands landscapes' different threats and conservation approaches," Jewell said, "but their overall goal is to minimize and prevent habitat disturbance of remaining habitat, improve habitat conditions through science-based and targeted management and to restore habitat particularly from wildfire and invasive species like that nemesis of the American West, cheatgrass."
Without the federal conservation plans, Fish and Wildlife Service officials say, they would not have been able to conclude listing was not warranted for sage grouse.
Brian Sandoval of Nevada and Matt Mead of Wyoming, both Republican governors, gave warm endorsements of the federal plans at the Sept. 22 announcement . Mead characterized the process as a model that should be replicated.
"It takes a Western village to get this done. The goal of the Endangered Species Act is not to list species; it is to take care of habitat so we don't have to list species," Mead said. "This day belongs to Western economic strength and balancing habitat. This day belongs to this amazing, funny, iconic bird that in many ways represents the health of Western habitat. And the health is good. In Wyoming, the plan protects 80 percent of the bird's core population area."
Wyoming and Nevada account for about half the remaining 170 million acres of sage grouse habitat, mostly in vast contiguous swaths. Utah's landscape, in contrast, is broken up by towering mountain ranges, the Paunsaugunt, Wasatch, Aquarius and other high plateaus, and deeply incised river corridors. While Wyoming is described as a "sagebrush sea," Utah is more like a network of isolated lagoons and bays harboring about 6 percent of the bird's remaining habitat.
While Mead was declaring the decision "a great day for Wyoming," U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, denounced it as "a cynical ploy" and "an act of fundamental dishonesty" aimed at extending federal control of the West. The sage grouse rules even undermine military readiness because they inhibit use of some lands associated with the Utah Test and Training Range and other military installations, said Bishop, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.
Environmental groups are also divided over the conservation plans.
"They are riddled with fatal weaknesses that will undermine sage grouse conservation and allow extractive industries into even the most sensitive sage grouse habitats," WildEarth Guardians said in a statement. "Though the plans are certainly better than nothing, they don't get us across the finish line."
Siding with WildEarth are Defenders of Wildlife and Center for Biological Diversity. Endorsing the federal plans are The Wilderness Society, Natural Resources Defense Council, The Nature Conservancy and Audubon.
Meanwhile, in a formal protest, Herbert's office argues the federal plan is not consistent with the state's plan, which identifies 11 "sage grouse management areas" covering 7.5 million acres of state, private and federal lands where industry and ranchers are encouraged to follow grouse-friendly prescriptions.
"We have 94 percent of the sage grouse in protected management areas," said John Harja, the governor's senior public lands policy analyst.
"The other 6 percent is [in the Uinta Basin] where [energy] development has overwhelmed the bird."
Harja said the BLM ignored data the state generated in 2012 at the request of then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and adopted dubious standards developed by a "national technical team." Accordingly, he said, the federal plan imposes conservation regulations on parts of southern Uintah County that could cost industry dearly, yet accomplish little toward grouse recovery.
Sledgehammer protection • The BLM in September posted a proposal on the Federal Register to withdraw 231,000 acres of mineral estate in Box Elder, Cache and Rich counties, along with about 10 million acres in other states. These are lands the BLM designated as high-value "sagebrush focal areas," the most important pieces of the priority habitat.
But on the Utah areas slated for withdrawal, mining is not a threat to sage grouse.
"That's where the feds went overboard," Harja said, "and used a sledgehammer where a scalpel would have worked."
Spurred by what he perceives as President Barack Obama's administration "tightening the grip" on Western states, Bishop hosted a Sept. 30 oversight hearing on "respecting state authority."
Herbert and other Western governors, including Wyoming's, testified and called for an end to federal intrusion, though Montana's governor disagreed with his colleagues' oft-repeated desire to take over management of federal lands.
Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter has already promised a lawsuit. "We didn't want an ESA listing, but in many ways these administrative rules are worse," Otter said in a statement.
"This complaint is an unfortunate but necessary step to protect the rights of Idaho citizens to participate in public land decisions that will impact their communities, their economy and their lives."
The feds downplayed the plan's impact on energy development, arguing that oil and gas inventories indicate there is not much overlap between medium-to-high-potential areas with "priority habitat," the lands where new BLM rules impose "no surface occupancy" drilling stipulations. And these rules don't apply to pre-existing leases.
Oil and gas still can be accessed from state or private inholdings through horizontal drilling, but Harja foresees unintended consequences that could hurt sage grouse.
"If you take away the flexibility," Harja said, "you might put the well on private land that could be in the worst possible spot."