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Greater sage grouse. Photo credit: Bob Wick, BLM

BOISE, Idaho – A federal judge recently suspended new drilling and fracking on 605 federal oil and gas leases spanning 403,820 acres of greater sage-grouse habitat in Wyoming and Montana, according to a news release from the Center for Biological Diversity.

Magistrate Judge Ronald Bush ruled that the Bureau of Land Management violated federal law by failing to justify its refusal to defer leasing in priority greater sage-grouse habitat, failing to provide baseline data about the bird’s populations in the lease areas and failing to analyze site-specific and cumulative impacts to the bird.

“The Trump administration blatantly violated federal law in its zeal to open public lands to oil and gas drilling, as this decision confirms,” said Laird Lucas, executive director of Advocates for the West, a public interest environmental law firm that handled the case. “As the court found, the imperiled sage-grouse is particularly harmed by oil and gas development, yet the Trump BLM refused to acknowledge those impacts and misled the public. It is time for the Biden administration to abandon these unlawful Trump decisions.”

Wednesday’s order is the second ruling flowing from a 2018 lawsuit challenging the Trump administration’s failure to rigorously evaluate potential harms to greater sage grouse from oil and gas leasing and extraction.

The bird’s population has declined precipitously and become the focus of nationwide conservation efforts. A 2020 order in the same lawsuit voided 1 million acres of leases and rejected a policy slashing public participation in leasing decisions.

“This continues a long string of legal victories that are key to the survival of the imperiled greater sage grouse and the vanishing sagebrush ecosystem,” said Michael Saul, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s another stunning defeat for the Trump administration’s serial lawbreaking policies. This spectacular bird has been spared to dance another day across the Montana and Wyoming landscape.”

Some of the Wyoming leases sold were in the nation’s highest-density sage grouse concentration areas, including the “Golden Triangle” in the Upper Green River Valley and the northern Red Desert. Some of the leases also would have authorized gas field development across the recently discovered Red Desert to Hoback mule deer migration corridor, considered the longest land mammal migration in the lower 48 states.

“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,” said Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist and executive director of Western Watersheds Project. “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.”

The sage grouse is under threat because it is a sagebrush obligate, reliant on large expanses of intact sagebrush, and especially sensitive to disturbance and habitat fragmentation. It also needs enough vegetation cover and nutrition to raise chicks, unaltered mating grounds called “leks” for reproduction, and sufficiently healthy winter habitat to survive the cold season.

Greater sage grouse once occupied hundreds of millions of acres across the West, but the bird’s population has plummeted as oil and gas extraction, livestock grazing, roads and power lines have destroyed and fragmented their native habitats.

Protecting the grouse and its habitat benefits hundreds of other species that depend on the sagebrush ecosystem. These include pronghorn, elk, mule deer, golden eagles, native trout and migratory and resident birds. The BLM is responsible for managing more than half of the nation’s remaining sage-grouse habitat.

As a result of the recent order, prior to allowing any new development on the leases the BLM must undertake full environmental analyses and consider alternatives including holding off on leasing high-priority habitats for the greater sage grouse.

Western Watersheds Project and Center for Biological Diversity are represented in this litigation by Advocates for the West attorneys Sarah Stellberg and Laird Lucas.

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