(EnviroNews Nature) — Boise, Idaho — A federal court judge said the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Forest Service (USFWS) “looked at the trees without looking at the forest,” by artificially minimizing dangers facing the imperiled greater sage grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus). The ruling strikes down a Trump Administration attempt to loosen restrictions for industry across the “sagebrush sea” — an area encompassing hundreds of thousands of square miles across the American West. The decision hands down a major victory to a coalition of environmental groups that have been fighting the Government for years.
The Oct. 16, 2019 ruling halts the BLM’s March 2019 land-use plans that opened the door for expanded drilling, mining, livestock grazing and other destructive activities across 51 million acres in seven states: Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, Nevada, California and Oregon.
Western Watersheds Project, the Center for Biological Diversity, WildEarth Guardians and Prairie Hills Audubon Society requested an injunction in April to stop the BLM plans — strategies approved by former oil industry lobbyist and Interior Secretary David Bernhardt. According to the environmental groups, the aim was to gut protections for the birds’ dwindling populations and destroy their habitat by rolling back Obama-era protections.
U.S. District Court Judge B. Lynn Winmill said the Administration failed to analyze how sage grouse would be harmed. “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,” Winmill wrote in his ruling.
NEPA, or the National Environmental Protection Act, requires government agencies to conduct environmental analyses called Environmental Impact Statements (EIS) when approving industrial projects or proposing plans on federally managed lands. Environmental groups say the science reflects a precipitous population decline of sage grouse as a direct result of residential development, natural resource extraction and cattle grazing.
“This Court has written extensively on the decline of sage grouse populations and habitat,” Winmill wrote. “Despite these declines the Fish and Wildlife Service in 2005 determined that a listing under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) was ‘not warranted,’” the ruling continued. “The Court reversed that decision, finding that it ignored declines in population and habitat, and was not based on the best science as required. The Court remanded the case to the USFWS for further consideration,” he concluded.
According to the 29-page ruling, the BLM’s plan would split up sage grouse management into regions, giving states more autonomy. If the sage grouse were a federally protected species, the restrictions on the region would be more stringent than they are currently in terms of how close industry and developments can get to areas marked as sage grouse habitat. For the past several years, the BLM, alongside dozens of partnered entities from a multitude of sectors, has fought to keep sage grouse off the endangered species list.
Adult sage grouse weigh around four pounds and spend most of their time on the ground. They are tightly intertwined with their habitat and eat tough sagebrush, other plants and bugs. Sage grouse are perhaps best known for their lek-based mating rituals, where males gulp about a gallon of air and strut around making burbling sounds in hope of being chosen by females in the group. But as more of their natural habitat is taken over by mining, cattle grazing and oil operations, sage grouse numbers have dwindled. Scientists estimate only 200,000 to 500,000 birds remain — a far cry from the 16 million that once flew free across the prairie.
In the lawsuit, conservation groups argued new land-use regulations would rescind or weaken an earlier 2015 strategy by creating enormous loopholes making it easier for fracking, drilling and other harmful activities to be in closer proximity to sage grouse land. Those Obama-era objectives were arrived at after years of tussling and deal-making between multiple industries, several government agencies, myriad environmental groups and multitudes of other affected parties. That agreement comprised the “largest, most complex land conservation effort ever in the history of the United States of America — perhaps the world,” according to then-Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewel.
“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 — a non-profit legal organization 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,” Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist and Executive Director with Western Watershed Project, said in a statement. “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.”
Sally Jewell led a five-year effort that culminated in a compromise providing protections for the sage grouse, while stopping short of an Endangered Species Act (ESA) listing. The deal was not supported by all affected states and interested parties though. Environmental groups wanted the bird protected under the ESA. And on the flip side, Utah and Idaho sued the Department of Interior (DOI) shortly after the announcement for what they called overly restrictive “draconian” land-use plans.
In December of 2018, Trump’s Interior Department announced it was prepared to open nine million acres of sage grouse land for drilling and mining, effectively unraveling the safety net put in place by the previous administration.
“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 [relies] on undisturbed western sagebrush landscapes. This ruling gives this beautiful bird a better shot at avoiding extinction.”
“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 with WildEarth Guardians. “When public lands and wildlife win in court, we all win.”
Biologist and sagebrush steppe ecosystem expert, Katie Fite wrote this to EnviroNews in an email:
The Trump Administration’s effort to weaken the Obama-era sage grouse plans for the benefit of the oil and gas industry, miners and cattlemen has in reality pushed the birds closer to an inevitable listing under the Endangered Species Act. The Court noted the continued declines in the bird’s populations across the West.
Fite was also featured in March of 2017 in a full-feature EnviroNews documentary titled, “Lions and Tigers and… Sage Grouse? Oh My! — The Granddaddy Endangered Species Battle of Them All.” While out in the middle of Idaho’s sagebrush country in the film, Fite explains how the exorbitant amount of habitat fragmentation caused by cattle grazing and other developments is destroying fragile wild lands — and simultaneously, the sage grouse.
“The Obama-era plans lauded by then-Interior Secretary Jewell were not protective enough of habitat to reverse the longterm downward slide of sage grouse populations,” Fite continued.
Fite concluded with this in her email to EnviroNews:
Now time has been wasted in implementing even those modest [Obama-era] protections. But that may well be the goal, because the Trump Interior Department had to know it would be impossible to justify weakening the previous plans. The ruling noted that often no rationales were given for the changes. The strategy seems to be waste as much time as possible so the birds become wiped out of many more areas and will not be an impediment to public lands [and] exploitation there.
The case is Western Watersheds Project v. Schneider, D. Idaho, No. 1:16-cv-00083, injunction granted 10/16/19.
OTHER IN-DEPTH REPORTING ON THE SAGE GROUSE FROM ENVIRONEWS