BOISE, Idaho— A federal judge today 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.
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.”
“This ruling throws a wrench into the Trump administration’s efforts to weaken protections for the greater sage-grouse, a species that is declining West-wide,” said Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist and executive director with Western Watersheds Project. “Every boost of protection we can get for sage-grouse and their habitats helps hundreds of other types of plants and wildlife that depend on the sagebrush sea, from elk to pygmy rabbits to golden eagles.”
In March 2019 four conservation groups sued Bernhardt and the Bureau of Land Management over the new land-use plans, which rescinded or weakened 2015 plans by creating enormous loopholes that make it easier for fracking, drilling and other harmful activities to occur in and near the imperiled bird’s prime habitat.
That complaint supplemented a 2016 lawsuit arguing that those earlier plans ― intended to avoid Endangered Species Act listing ― didn’t go far enough to protect the grouse.
“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,” said Michael Saul, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “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.”
Recent population estimates from multiple state wildlife agencies show that grouse populations are plummeting. This adds urgency to the need to ensure that sage grouse and their habitats are protected.
“The Trump administration’s attack on public lands must be stopped, so I’m glad to see wild places prevail in this case,” said Taylor Jones, endangered species advocate for WildEarth Guardians. “When public lands and wildlife win in court, we all win.”
Greater sage grouse once occupied hundreds of millions of acres across the West, but their populations have plummeted as oil and gas development, livestock grazing, roads, powerlines and other activities have destroyed and fragmented their native habitats.
The grouse is under threat because it is intensely loyal to particular areas, reliant on large expanses of intact sagebrush and especially sensitive to disturbance and habitat fragmentation. It also needs sufficient vegetation cover and nutrition to raise chicks, unaltered mating grounds called “leks” for reproduction, and sufficiently healthy winter habitat to survive the cold season.
Protecting the grouse and its habitat benefits hundreds of other species that depend on the Sagebrush Sea ecosystem. That includes pronghorns, elk, mule deer, golden eagles, native trout and migratory and resident birds. The BLM is responsible for managing about half of the nation’s remaining sage grouse habitat.
Western Watersheds Project, the Center for Biological Diversity, WildEarth Guardians and Prairie Hills Audubon Society are represented by Advocates for the West, a nonprofit, public-interest law firm based in Boise.