DENVER — Fresh off a legal victory that blocked grizzly bear hunting, environmental groups are launching new lawsuits against the Trump administration aimed at protecting dozens of other threatened species.
Two lawsuits aim to protect two species specifically — the lesser prairie chicken and a kind of caribou with hooves the size of dinner plates – and a third suit aims to protect threatened species like wolves and bears at risk for being killed under a federal predator-control program. The first two suits have not yet been filed, but the sponsors have filed a required 60-day notice with the federal government.
Taken together, the legal efforts represent a new salvo against the Trump administration, which environmental groups say is ignoring the nation’s laws to open up land for oil, coal and gas extraction, and to favor conservative farmers and ranchers. The lawsuits seek to force the administration to adhere to what the environmental groups say are its obligations under the Endangered Species Act and other federal laws.
Last fall, many of the same groups claimed a major victory when a federal judge ordered the Interior Department to reinstate protections for grizzlies. The judge ruled U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials were “arbitrary and capricious” in their 2017 decision to remove the bears’ protections under the Endangered Species Act.
“It’s not just that we’re on the right track, legally – these laws are a representation of our values as people,” said Collette Adkins, an attorney for the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity, which uses lawsuits, science and policy advocacy to protect wildlife, water and the environment. “Congress passed these laws and we put our representatives into office because they reflect our views.”
Among the organizations joining the Center for Biological Diversity in filing one or more of the suits are New Mexico-based WildEarth Guardians, the Washington, D.C.-based Defenders of Wildlife and the Idaho-based Western Watersheds Project. The Center for Biological Diversity boasts that it has sued the Trump administration more than 100 times in the past two years.
The Department of the Interior, the federal agency being sued, declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.
The prairie chicken suit aims to force the Trump administration to list the animals as a formally threatened species. Doing so would give the birds additional legal protections, and potentially reduce the amount of land available for oil and gas extraction, cattle grazing and power-line construction. The birds live in Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas, and the environmental groups say climate change and habitat fragmentation threaten to cause their extinction. Once numbering in the millions, experts say there may only be about 38,000 of the birds left.
The Endangered Species Act requires federal officials to protect threatened wildlife, and environmental groups have long used it to prod presidents of both parties into action. The prairie chickens were protected in 2014, but a lawsuit brought by oil producers overturned that decision.
The environmental groups are also suing to protect the southern Selkirk herd of caribou, which used to live in Idaho. The caribou are wild cousins of reindeer, and used to migrate between the United States and Canada. The caribou have been protected under the Endangered Species Act since 1983, but the only ones left alive are living in captivity in Canada. Environmentalists say the caribou are dying off because of climate change and habitat fragmentation. The pending lawsuit wants federal officials to set aside habitat for the caribou to live on so they can be re-introduced into the wild in the United States.
“It’s a tragedy that southern mountain caribou have been allowed to blink out in the lower 48 states,” said Jason Rylander, a senior attorney at Defenders of Wildlife. “With the right protections in place we can bring them back, and we should.”
The third lawsuit, which was filed in late January, asks a federal judge to order an arm of the federal government known as Wildlife Services to stop killing coyotes and other animals in Wyoming, and to reconsider whether they should even be killed at all. Federal officials use a wide range of techniques, from exploding cyanide “bombs” to leg-hold traps, to kill coyotes, wolves and cougars that threaten or pose a danger to livestock or people.
In 2017, Wildlife Services reported killing more than 20,000 animals in Wyoming under the program, not just predators, but also other animals caught in traps or poisoned, including potentially endangered or threatened species. Wildlife Services has long been a favorite target of environmental groups during both Republican and Democratic presidential administrations.
Adkins said federal officials haven’t updated the scientific data used to justify the program in decades, and new research indicates that killing coyotes can actually raise the overall population because new ones move into and begin breeding.
That lawsuit asks a judge to order federal officials to consider alternatives to killing predators, like bringing in guard dogs to protect flocks and herds, or putting up better fencing.
“We have for decades and decades aggressively been killing coyotes. And we have more coyotes that we had before,” Adkins said.