The Bureau of Land Management did not adequately consider the science behind management plans covering millions of acres of greater sage-grouse habitat in Western states, a federal judge in Idaho ruled Wednesday, halting implementation of the plans.

“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” under the National Environmental Policy Act, U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill wrote in his order.

Environmental groups who brought the lawsuit over the 2019 plan amendments, which would afford more opportunities for mining and drilling on public lands while still offering protections for the bird, were thrilled with the decision.

“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, who is representing the plaintiffs. “The law demands more. This injunction is critical to protecting the sagebrush steppe and this icon of the American West.”

Cattlemen had a different take, calling the judge’s ruling an example of “judicial activism.”

“The claims lodged by the plaintiffs are not based in science,” Public Lands Council President Bob Skinner said. “Time and time again, research has demonstrated that grazing is not only compatible with healthy sage grouse populations, it is a critical tool in the prevention of wildfire, which is the primary threat to sage grouse habitat.”

National Cattlemen’s Beef Association President Jennifer Houston said the environmental groups “care less about genuine conservation of the sage grouse and more about pushing livestock off of federal lands.”

Winmill’s order prevents plans covering land in Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Nevada/Northeastern California, and Oregon from going into effect.

The judge said the “stated purpose” of the changes in March to the Obama administration’s 2015 plan for the sage-grouse habitat “was to enhance cooperation between the BLM and the states by modifying the BLM’s protections for sage-grouse to better align with plans developed by the states.”

That goal “is well within the agency’s discretion,” the judge said, but the ultimate effect on the ground “was to substantially reduce protections for sage-grouse without any explanation that the reductions were justified by, say, changes in habitat, improvement in population numbers, or revisions to the best science” contained in earlier government reports.

The 2019 plan amendments “included significant changes to mandatory buffers around sage-grouse leks [breeding sites] in designated habitat areas,” Winmill said in his order. “In Idaho and Nevada/California, the BLM reduced existing lek buffers by several miles. Colorado removed the prohibition on oil and gas leasing within 1 mile of active sage-grouse leks, opening up approximately 224,000 acres of previously-protected habitat.”

“Under these weakened protections, the BLM will be approving oil and gas leases; drilling permits; rights-of-way for roads, pipelines, and powerlines; coal and phosphate mining approvals; and livestock grazing permit renewals,” the judge said.

The injunction will remain in effect until the judge decides the case after a full briefing on the merits.

The sage-grouse was not listed under the Endangered Species Act in 2015 on the basis of BLM and Forest Service plans designed to balance the needs of resource users with protections for the bird. 

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