BOISE, Idaho -- The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ignored expert advice when it decided to deny federal protection to the sage grouse and the agency must reconsider its decision, a federal judge ruled Tuesday.
In a decision highly critical of the agency and its decision-making process, U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill said the service also failed to use the "best science" available when deciding not give the declining species protection under the federal Endangered Species Act.
Winmill also found that a former Interior Department official charged with overseeing the Fish and Wildlife Service used pressure and intimidation tactics and even edited scientific conclusions to keep the birds from being listed as endangered. The judge condemned the agency's decision-making process, expressing doubt that it could be used effectively in any endangered species listing decision.
Joan Jewett, a spokeswoman for the Fish and Wildlife Service in Portland, Ore., said the agency had not yet seen the ruling and so she could not comment.
But sage grouse advocates were heartened.
"They separated out the science from the decision and that's fundamentally flawed. This ruling is just one more court ruling saying that the Bush administration is not following the Endangered Species Act," said Laird Lucas, the attorney representing the Western Watersheds Project, which sued the agency last year over its listing decision. "I do believe the sage grouse will be listed soon."
Sonya Jones, a lawyer with the Pacific Legal Foundation representing ranching, livestock and farming interests in Idaho, Wyoming, Oregon and Nevada, promised to appeal.
Jones said the Fish and Wildlife Service followed all the rules required by the Endangered Species Act in making its determination. Listing the bird could have harsh economic consequences, she said.
"We believe that this court got it wrong," Jones said. "The court did not agree with (the agency's) decision, but as a matter of law, we believe the difference goes to the Fish and Wildlife Service ... If eventually sage grouse were to be listed then it would diminish the land available for grazing and force many livestock producers out of business."
The states of Idaho, Wyoming and Colorado had sided with the Fish and Wildlife Service in the case, arguing in part that the states had spent a great deal of time and money creating their own conservation plans to protect grouse, and that those protection efforts were working. Those efforts justified the Fish and Wildlife Service decision, the states said.
Bill Myers, an attorney representing livestock and oil and gas interests and serving as local counsel for the states of Idaho and Wyoming, said his clients have not yet decided whether they will appeal.
The judge harshly criticized what he said was the "inexcusable conduct" of former Deputy Assistant Interior Secretary Julie MacDonald, who resigned in May. MacDonald intimidated Fish and Wildlife staffers, edited scientific conclusions and otherwise intervened in the listing process "to ensure that the 'best science' supported a decision not to list the species," Winmill said.
MacDonald's tactics have also been blasted in other court cases. In November, the Fish and Wildlife Service reversed seven rulings that had denied increased protection for imperiled species after an investigation found those actions were tainted by pressure from MacDonald.
Conservation and environmental groups predicted that several more of the Fish and Wildlife Services' listing decisions will be called into question because of Winmill's ruling.
"Basically there is a huge tidal wave of litigation coming down on the agency," said Kieran Suckling, policy director of the Center for Biological Diversity, a group that had watched the case closely and sued the Fish and Wildlife Service over other species. "It's still very much an open question whether Fish and Wildlife will take this ruling to heart and fundamentally get changed, or just participate in a coverup."