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Judge protects nearly 1 million acres of sage-grouse habitat

sage-grouse
Greater Sage-Grouse performing a mating display on a lek. Photo by Tom Reichner/Shutterstock

On Thursday, February 27, a federal judge rejected a Trump administration policy to sharply curtail public participation in oil and gas leasing decisions on public lands and voided nearly 1 million acres leased under the policy. The ruling applies to lease sales in Greater Sage-Grouse habitat across 67 million acres in 11 Western states.

U.S. Chief Magistrate Judge Ronald E. Bush vacated five oil and gas leases in Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming because the Bureau of Land Management failed to allow public participation required by law. Future leases in sage-grouse habitat must allow a 30-day public comment and administrative protest period.

“This administration has been relentless in its efforts to cut the public out of public lands decision-making, starting in 2018,” said Talasi Brooks, a staff attorney with Western Watersheds Project. “The court wasn’t fooled by the agency’s efforts to disguise its intention to provide greater influence to extractive energies, and the sage-grouse and 350 other sagebrush-dependent species will benefit from today’s win.”

In January 2018 the BLM issued an instruction memorandum directing field offices to accelerate oil and gas leasing on public lands, in part by curtailing environmental review and eliminating mandatory public comment periods. Conservation groups challenged the policy as an unlawful attempt to eliminate public involvement in BLM leasing decisions.

“This is an enormous victory for Greater Sage-Grouse and hundreds of other animals and plants that depend on this dwindling habitat,” said Taylor McKinnon, a senior campaigner at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The judge confirmed that it’s illegal to silence the public to expand fossil-fuel extraction. It’s a win for millions of acres of our beautiful public lands and a major blow to the Trump administration’s corrupt efforts to serve corporate polluters.”

In his ruling, the judge said there was significant evidence that the BLM was intentionally shutting the public out. “BLM inescapably intended to reduce and even eliminate public participation in the future decision-making process,” the judge wrote.

“Fast-tracking fossil fuel development is getting BLM nowhere,” said Sarah Stellberg, an attorney with Advocates for the West. “This decision spares a million acres of public lands from short-sighted leasing and restores the public’s right to weigh in on these decisions going forward.”

Today’s ruling is part of a broader lawsuit challenging BLM’s federal oil and gas leasing practices across five western states and covering almost 2 million acres of key Greater Sage-Grouse habitat. The iconic and imperiled western bird has lost almost half of its habitat since Euro-American settlement.

Despite increasing concerns about wildlife habitat, climate change, and water-quality impacts, about 90 percent of federal public lands in the West are available for oil and gas leasing.

Thanks to the Center for Biological Diversity for providing this news.

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