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Lobbyist to Utah Legislature: Plan for Environmental Fights

sage grouse endangered species utah

Correction: In some instances in the below story, the EPA was credited by the author to be the agency overseeing the Endangered Species designation of the Greater-Sage Grouse. This has been changed, and corrected.

A lobbyist for Utah energy interests has recommended that the state defend itself from the Greater Sage-Grouse.

The Greater Sage-Grouse, a bird species native to Utah and much of the West, has often been characterized by conservationists as a species in danger. A century ago, millions of these ornate birds roamed America’s sagebrush. Today, it’s estimated that there are only a few hundred thousand left.

The Sage-Grouse’s dwindling numbers have provoked the question of species protection in recent years. To date, the bird is not an endangered species, but that could change in 2015, when the federal government plans to reassess the well-being of the species.

But according to Utah energy lobbyist Jeff Hartley, the state should be prepared to fight a legal battle with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over the Greater Sage-Grouse. What’s Hartley’s suggestion to the Utah legislature? Speaking to the Executive Appropriations Committee last week, he told members to brace themselves for the coming battle with the federal government.

"You all may not see it from your view but there is an onslaught of issues coming toward the state that you all will have to address in the coming years," Hartley said. "My concern is that the state is inadequately prepared to defend its interests when it comes time to consider those issues."

He said the USFWS wants to grant endangered status to both the Sage-Grouse and a rare species of beardtongue plants, going on to suggest that the USFWS may have ulterior motives.

"But the reality is they're trying to list these species to shut down energy production. It's not even...they don't even try to hide it. It's just blatant," Hartley said. 

So Hartley recommends that the state create a fund to support data-collection projects designed to refute the USFWS’s data. He said money will also be needed to afford the lawyers who typically take up these kinds of cases. But if the state is well-prepared before litigation begins, Hartley claims the expenses would be miniscule compared to the potential loss of business.

"And the reality for the state officials is that unless we're equipped with good data to go into court and fight this-- unless we have smart attorneys who know how to beat the EPA on air quality issues, know how to beat Fish and Wildlife on endangered species issues-- this state will be inadequately prepared to go into those fights,"Hartley said. "You will lose. And when we lose, you lose hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue that will be locked up because you can't access the land for production."

Hartley estimates that the state needs $1 million for Sage-Grouse studies, and a few million more for studies involving other species and other environmental issues, such as air quality.

Hartley appeared before the Executive Appropriations Committee at the behest of Sen. David Hinkins (R-27).