(EnviroNews Idaho) — Conservation groups are celebrating a rare win for the environment, animals, and cleaner air as the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has called off a proposed oil and gas lease sale set for March near eastern Idaho’s Grays Lake National Wildlife Refuge, an important habitat area for the greater sage grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus).
Arguing the sale violated federal plans to protect the vulnerable bird, conservation groups also stated fracking and drilling is harmful to other wildlife and land use opportunities, which the groups said the BLM failed to take into account when scheduling the sale.
“This is an important victory for Idaho’s imperiled sage grouse and other wildlife threatened by fracking and drilling,” said Michael Saul, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, in a press release. “Fracking destroys wildlife habitat and pollutes air and water, so halting this sale was the right decision. It’s good to see the Bureau of Land Management acknowledging the risks and uncertainties of turning this land over to the oil industry.”
The questionable value of Idaho’s oil and gas deposits has, thus far, kept development of these resources to a minimum in the state. But on June 28, 2016, Alta Mesa Idaho confirmed that one of its 16 wells was producing crude oil – a first in the Gem State. For now, that won’t be enough for the green light near Grays Lake National Wildlife Refuge.
“We thank the BLM for recognizing that it did not have enough information about greater sage grouse to go forward with oil and gas leasing,” said Kelly Fuller, Energy Campaign Coordinator at Western Watersheds Project. “Since 2008, this area of Idaho has been closed to sage grouse hunting because not enough is known about this small, vulnerable population. If there isn’t enough information to allow hunting, there certainly isn’t enough to allow drilling and fracking.”
Energy development, livestock grazing and invasive grasses that encourage wildfire, have threatened the greater sage grouse and its habitats throughout the West. Obama’s 2015 compromise to keep the sage grouse off the endangered species list is now being changed by the Trump Administration. Still, the greater sage grouse has now played a part in limiting the possible oil and gas development this lease sale would have involved.
A full-feature EnviroNews documentary titled Lions and Tigers and… Sage Grouse? Oh My! explains the majestic bird’s unintended role this way:
At EnviroNews, we’ve often referred to Centrocercus as the “monkeywrencher bird” – not because it threatens to monkeywrench the economy, but because it singlehandedly, by its very existence, has the ability to monkeywrench the exploits of all the aforementioned industries (including oil and gas) – all by way of a listing to the Endangered Species Act.
The successful protests will keep 800 acres out of the hands of oil and gas companies – at least for now. While the Trump Administration has done its best to decrease the amount of land protected as national parks and monuments and roll back Obama-era environmental regulations, it appears one small bird and a lack of due diligence have forced the BLM to pump the brakes. However, the sale has only been postponed until the agency decides to do the proper environmental studies related to the east-central Idaho sage grouse population.
While there is “no way of knowing how long the BLM will take to do its environmental assessment,” according to an email from Western Watersheds Project Executive Director Erik Molvar, it is clear if the leasing process moves forward, “the sage grouse population in this area will be faced with a new and industrial form of disturbance,” which “could cause major problems for a population that may not be in a position to move to other habitats.”
For the moment, Idaho’s greater sage grouse population, and the people who live in the state, can breathe a little easier.