ELC Helps Protect Bi-State Sage-Grouse from Off-Road Vehicles

This month, the U.S. District Court for Nevada delivered a big win in the fight to protect the imperiled bi-state sage-grouse, upholding U.S. Forest Service measures designed to protect sage-grouse habitat from off-road vehicle impacts.

In late 2012, the Forest Service began an effort to protect the bi-state sage-grouse, a population of greater sage-grouse that lives along the California-Nevada border. Conservation of this population is important not only for the sake of this charismatic bird, but also because sage-grouse conservation confers a protective umbrella over hundreds of other plant and animal species that also depend on sagebrush habitat.

To protect the bi-state sage-grouse, the Forest Service amended its management plan for the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest after several years of environmental review. The amendment included area, timing, and seasonal restrictions on off-road vehicle usage. A cohort of recreational groups that race off-road vehicles—upset by the effects of these restrictions on their racing events—challenged the amendment, contending that the Forest Service had failed to satisfy a number of procedural requirements imposed by the National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”).

The Clinic intervened in this litigation on behalf of several environmental groups—the American Bird Conservancy, Center for Biological Diversity, Western Watersheds Project, and WildEarth Guardians—who had played an integral part in informing the amendment process through public comments.  Our goal was both to provide broader factual context for the District Court to understand the importance of the bi-state sage-grouse and to highlight the errors in the plaintiffs’ NEPA arguments.

The District Court ultimately agreed with our clients and the Forest Service on all counts, rejecting the plaintiffs’ arguments that the Forest Service did not consider an adequate range of alternatives and that the Forest Service needed to provide a supplemental environmental impact statement for its environmentally protective measures. In just one of the Court’s references to our cross-motion for summary judgment, the Court wrote that it “agrees with Intervenor Defendants that ‘the final [Off-Highway Vehicle] Standard differed in degree, but not in kind, from the alternatives the Forest Service had considered throughout the process.’” See the full order in Sierra Trail Dogs Motorcycle and Recreation Club v. U.S. Forest Service here.

Thomas Schubert and I drafted our clients’ cross-motion for summary judgment, and Thomas wrote our clients’ reply. Our work built off the earlier work of Clinic students Michael Golz and Joseph Zabel, who authored our clients’ successful motion to intervene in the case. Working on this case was a particularly rewarding professional experience for me. It’s rare for even young associates to write—much less win—dispositive motions for a client. It speaks volumes to the trust and time that the Clinic puts into its students. It was especially fulfilling to help win the case for our clients, who have been waging battles to protect the bi-state sage-grouse on multiple fronts for years. (Check out ELC clients’ successful efforts to have the bi-state sage-grouse considered for protection as a threatened or endangered species.)