Due to the Trump Administration severely limiting public input on oil and gas leasing decisions in the last two years, nearly a million acres of public land leases in sage grouse habitat issued under that policy are now null and void, a federal judge in Idaho ruled Thursday.
U.S. Chief Magistrate Judge Ronald E. Bush vacated a January 2018 memorandum from the Bureau of Land Management that had greatly reduced public comment and protest periods for proposed energy lease sales, as well as abbreviated environmental review.
“Faster and easier lease sales, at the expense of public participation, is not enough,” Judge Bush wrote in his decision. He restored 30-day public comment and administrative protest periods for proposed leases.
The oil and gas industry was predictably disappointed by the ruling. “This decision is so divorced from the rule of law that you would be hard pressed [to find] another judge in the entire federal court system who would say that producing leases should be canceled because of a minor question of process,” said Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance.\
The ruling comes in response to a lawsuit from the Western Watershed Project and the Center for Biological Diversity, who alleged that the 2018 BLM memorandum violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), Federal Land Policy and Management Act, Administrative Procedures Act (APA), and other bedrock conservation statutes, which mandate that the affected public must have some say before oil drilling occurs on their public lands. The litigants were especially trying to provide relief for the greater sage grouse, a large, native upland bird that has suffered precipitous population declines in recent decades, from a high of 16 million to now less than half a million.
In 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service considered listing sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act. Such a decision would have caused massive issues for extractive industries and ranchers as well as hunters, rural communities, and Western states, so that a diverse group of stakeholders came together to propose state-based management plans to promote sage grouse populations while avoiding onerous federal rules. Many of these plans were adopted and hailed for their vision and compromise, but the Trump Administration has slowly chipped away at them since coming into power.
John Gale, conservation director for Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, was involved in that process and has been tracking sage grouse conservation for decades.
“This success story continues to be the target of repeated attacks from the current administration,” Gale said. “Unraveling these conservation plans not only threatens sage grouse habitat; it also creates greater uncertainty for big game populations like elk, pronghorn, and mule deer.
“Instead of catering to outsiders and special interests, the administration should keep its promise to the West and allow science to guide land management decisions. Implementing the 2015 plans as originally envisioned respects the time and investment made by so many—and gives us the best chance of avoiding an ESA listing for the bird—all while maintaining the flexibility to compensate for new science and information that will continue to inform management models going forward.”