Court halts leasing, drilling expansion in sage grouse habitat


SHERIDAN — A federal judge ruled in an Idaho district court Oct. 16 that the Bureau of Land Management must temporarily discontinue efforts to expand leasing, drilling and industrial activities in millions of acres of greater sage grouse habitat in Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, Nevada, California and Oregon.

“The judge made it clear that the [Trump] administration ignored the best available science, removed key protections in the plans and did so in a manner that cut out the public,” Nada Culver, vice president for public lands with the National Audubon Society said.

“The court agreed that these amendments were wrong for the sage-grouse and wrong under the law.”

The ruling “throws a wrench” in the Trump administration’s efforts to weaken protections for greater sage-grouse, said Jackie Canterbury, president of Bighorn Audubon.

According to a July 2019 Audubon study, the rate of leasing and leased acres per month for oil and gas operations in western states more than doubled in February 2017-March 2019 compared to October 2015-January 2017. Rates tripled for sage-grouse habitat, comparing the same time periods.

The Western Energy Alliance, which opposed the ruling, said on the WEA website that companies follow detailed prescriptions in federal and state management plans to avoid, minimize and mitigate impacts to the [greater sage-grouse] and its habitat.”

Greater sage-grouse are indicator species for overall habitat health in sagebrush areas, Canterbury said. Audubon has noted a high rate of oil and gas permitting recently, as if trying to pack it in before the end of the Trump administration, she said.

Leasing for oil and gas drilling leads to roads, infrastructure, power lines and massive environmental changes, and organizations need to be cognizant of the resulting effects on all species, including humans, she said.

As the ruling is temporary and a final decision is pending, it is a disconcerting time for people who care about wildlife, habitat and public land, Canterbury said.

A 2015 sage-grouse plan banned or limited oil and gas drilling on nearly 11 million acres of sage-grouse habitat. The Oct. 16 ruling will put the 2015 plan back in effect until the courts make a final determination on the legality of the Bureau of Land Management’s 2019 changes to the plan, which aimed to limit the protected area to fewer than two million acres, mostly in Oregon and Montana.

Until the Trump administration is “removed,” the environment is under threat, Canterbury said. She is pleased that this court decision came through, as it will give wildlife a chance to revive. Every level of protection for birds, whose safety has been compromised by the oil and gas industry, helps all types of wildlife, she said.

The Trump administration has been harder on the environment than she’s ever seen, Canterbury said. Wyoming will need to diversify its industry beyond oil and gas and pay attention to the environmental implications of those industries, she said.

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