Judge blocks BLM sage grouse plan

JACKSON HOLE, Wyo. — A federal judge this week blocked Trump administration plans allowing expanded drilling, mining, livestock grazing, and other destructive activities across 51 million acres of greater sage-grouse habitat in seven western states: Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, Nevada, California and Oregon.

In his order granting a preliminary injunction, U.S. District Court Judge B. Lynn Winmill ruled that the administration failed to analyze how sage grouse would be harmed under the March 2019 land-use plans.

“Certainly, the BLM is entitled to align its actions with the State plans, but when the BLM substantially reduces protections for sage grouse contrary to the best science and the concerns of other agencies, there must be some analysis and justification—a hard look—in the NEPA documents,” he wrote.

The decision means the 2015 Sage Grouse Management Plan goes back into effect, and it did not sit well with leadership in Wyoming.

“I am disappointed in Judge Winmill’s decision,” said Governor Mark Gordon. “Wyoming and the Sage Grouse Implementation Team have worked diligently for more than a decade to develop a balanced approach to sage-grouse management. We worked with numerous stakeholders to produce a plan that provides that balance and offers protection of the bird while maintaining responsible development.”

Conservation groups requested the injunction in April, saying the plans approved by Interior Secretary David Bernhardt would gut protections for the birds’ dwindling populations and destroy their habitat.

“The Bureau of Land Management deliberately undermined protections for the sage-grouse, then had the audacity to claim these rollbacks would not impact the species,” said Sarah Stellberg, an attorney with Advocates for the West representing the plaintiffs. “The law demands more. This injunction is critical to protecting the sagebrush steppe and this icon of the American West.”

Gov. Gordon said legal action has served only to hinder the state’s work toward aiding sage grouse.

“The 2019 Plan Amendment did not substantively change Greater sage-grouse protections; it better aligned the BLM with what Wyoming has had in place. Lawsuits like this only prevent Wyoming from continuing the collaborative work that we have already been doing. They do not afford the bird any more benefit and only act as a roadblock,” Gordon commented.

Michael Saul, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said, “We’re grateful the judge spared the sage grouse from Bernhardt’s despicable and illegal plan to open every last acre of their BLM-managed habitat to fracking. The court’s decision is a victory for public lands and the spectacular wildlife that rely on undisturbed western sagebrush landscapes. This ruling gives this beautiful bird a better shot at avoiding extinction.”

For Wyoming, the decision reinstates the 2015 plan and results in the following changes:

  • Restores the mitigation standard to requiring “net conservation gain” instead of voluntary “no net loss.”
  • Sagebrush Focal Areas protections reinstated: (1) Recommendation for hardrock mineral withdrawal; (2) non-waivable NSO stipulation for oil and gas development; (3) prioritization for grazing permit reviews, compliance checks, post-fire treatments.
  • Restores the requirement to apply science-based lek buffers
  • Restores requirement to prioritize oil and gas leasing and development outside of priority and general habitat areas
  • Requires BLM to proactively impose thresholds/responses to protect sage-grouse during grazing permit renewals rather than requiring changes only after the habitat assessments identify a problem.
  • Restores requirement to prioritize grazing field checks, compliance monitoring, and permit renewals in PHMA.
  • Restores quantifiable “Habitat Objectives” with subjective “Desired Conditions” for evaluating sage-grouse habitat conditions

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