In major win for wildlife, a Federal Court ordered the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to remove over a million acres of greater sage-grouse habitat land from planned December oil and gas lease sales.
The Greater Sage-Grouse. Photo: Bob Wick, Bureau of Land Management, CC
(In an ironic twist, this image of this important bird which would have been decimated if the BLM gas and oil lease auctions had gone through for December, has the BLM-provided caption "Greater Sage-Grouse Conservation: Effective conservation of the greater sage-grouse and its habitat requires a collaborative, science-based approach that includes strong federal plans, strong plans for state and private lands, and a proactive strategy to reduce the risk of rangeland fires." Obviously somebody higher up missed that the BLM cared about the greater sage-grouse this much when they issued their lease sales orders early in 2018.)
These lands were part of an “Instruction Memorandum” issued by the BLM in January 2018 directing its staff to deliberately and illegally cut back on mandatory environmental reviews for its oil and gas auctions, as well as to eliminate public comment periods.
A motion for preliminary injunction, filed by Advocates for the West on behalf of Western Watersheds Project and the Center for Biological Diversity, challenged the policy as an unlawful attempt to cut public involvement in BLM leasing decisions.
Based on that suit, in September a judge halted implementation of that policy for future leases across sage grouse habitat areas in 11 western states. The rare birds are gravely threatened by drilling. That may have worked for a short while, but it took a formal court order to force the BM to finally remove a specific group of 1 million acres of greater sage-grouse lands from sale in December.
With the lands available for prospecting, destructive new roads, heavy equipment, power supplies, fuel storage, temporary pipelines, and drilling systems would have been put in place on the lands. The cuts in forests to create new roads, the toxic waste dumped into the air, land, and aquifers in the environment, and even the noise alone would have been enough to disrupt the life of multiple species, including far more than the greater sage-grouse. Yet for this administration apparently almost anything is acceptable if it means another drop of oil harvested and another dollar earned for the fossil fuel industry.
“We’re pleased the BLM is following the judge’s ruling and at least temporarily protecting large swaths of greater sage-grouse habitat,” said Taylor McKinnon of the Center for Biological Diversity. “But the Trump administration is doing everything it can to put millions of acres of public lands into the fossil fuel industry’s hands. This fight is far from over.”
The BLM has now postponed more than 1 million acres of sage-grouse habitat from its December oil and gas lease auctions, including 578 parcels totaling approximately 775,000 acres in Wyoming. The agency is expected to post its Nevada sale notice shortly, removing even more acres of sage-grouse habitat.
“Elk, mule deer and pronghorn antelope need the same habitat the sage grouse do,” said Kelly Fuller, energy and mining campaign director for Western Watersheds Project. “BLM should remove the sage-grouse habitat from leasing permanently to protect seasonal habitats and migration corridors so the wildlife that rely on those public lands can survive. Oil and gas drilling on sage-grouse habitat means goodbye grouse and big game.”
In ruling on the case that protected the lands just removed by the BLM, U.S. Chief Magistrate Judge Ronald E. Bush said that, “The record contains significant evidence indicating that BLM made an intentional decision to limit the opportunity for (and even in some circumstances to preclude entirely) any contemporaneous public involvement in decisions concerning whether to grant oil and gas leases on federal lands.”
“The court found that BLM’s deliberate efforts to cut the public out of public lands decision-making likely violate its statutory mandate to provide for public involvement,” said Sarah Stellberg with Advocates for the West. “We appreciate the much-needed reprieve for the greater sage grouse, but until BLM reinstates public comment and protest opportunities for all oil and gas lease sales, its actions will continue to violate the law.”
The preliminary injunction is part of a broader lawsuit challenging BLM’s federal oil and gas leasing practices across five western states and covering almost 2 million acres of key greater sage-grouse habitat.
The iconic and imperiled western bird has lost approximately 95 percent of its population and almost half of its habitat since Euro-American settlement. Greater sage grouse are intensely loyal to specific seasonal areas and reliant on large expanses of undisturbed sagebrush habitat. Oil and gas development in their remaining habitat poses a significant threat to the species’ continued existence.