A judge suspended new oil and gas drilling on more than 630 square miles of greater sage grouse habitat in Wyoming and Montana in a ruling Wednesday against the Bureau of Land Management. The federal agency violated the National Environmental Policy Act when it auctioned off hundreds of acres of sage grouse habitat — some of which is considered priority habitat — in four 2017 sales, according to Idaho U.S. District Judge Ronald Bush. The BLM, under then-President Donald Trump, failed to adequately consider the effects that drilling would have on the greater sage grouse or to properly weigh the possibility of deferring drilling in the bird’s habitat, ruled Bush, a President George W. Bush appointee. The judge determined that “it was reasonably possible for BLM to synthesize available information and analyze in better detail the site-specific impacts of the lease sales on greater sage-grouse.” Additionally, he ruled, “BLM violated NEPA by failing to provide an adequate explanation of why it failed to consider the reasonable alternative of deferring priority greater sage-grouse habitat.” His order stems from a 2018 lawsuit by environmental group Western Watersheds Project, which challenged the Trump administration’s evaluation of leasing’s possible effects on the bird.
“Instead of prioritizing oil and gas leasing and development outside designated sage grouse habitats, the Trump administration targeted some of our nation’s most ecologically sensitive public lands for drilling and fracking, without even considering the consequences,” Western Watersheds Project executive director Erik Molvar said in a news release. “This ruling sends a very strong message that the BLM can no longer lease public lands for fossil fuel development without weighing the outcomes for sensitive lands and wildlife.” Rather than vacate the lease sales as the group requested, however, the judge chose to send the environmental assessments back to the BLM so it could address the problems that were raised. Until then, the agency cannot issue new applications for permits to drill or approve of any new “surface disturbing activities” on the parcels. “The State of Wyoming has taken extensive steps to ensure that the sage-grouse remains off the endangered species list while balancing the need for other uses of public lands like grazing, recreation, and oil and natural gas development,” Pete Obermueller, president of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming, said in a statement. “I am confident the mitigation measures the industry has taken will withstand a second look.” The state is listed as an intervenor in support of the BLM in the case. “The Governor is dismayed by Judge Bush’s ruling but is pleased that the leases have not been vacated,” said Gordon spokesman Michael Pearlman. “We are currently evaluating our options as to whether the state will appeal the ruling.”
The BLM and the Western Energy Alliance, another intervenor, did not respond to requests for comment, according to the Associated Press. Sage grouse are a chicken-sized, primarily ground-dwelling bird whose numbers have fallen significantly from the millions that inhabited the U.S. West in frontier times. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined in 2010 that the bird deserved special protection but said in 2015 that conservation efforts led by Wyoming made that unnecessary. A February report from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department said that the number of sage grouse in Wyoming had remained stable in 2020. Bush’s ruling comes amid a federal oil and gas leasing moratorium imposed by President Joe Biden’s administration while it studies the effects on climate change. According to the lawsuit, federal agencies manage about half of the bird’s remaining habitat.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.