Great Falls, MT
On Friday, the U.S. District Court in Montana invalidated hundreds of oil and gas leases sold by the Trump administration. The leases covered hundreds of thousands of acres of sage-grouse habitat protected under the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) 2015 sage-grouse conservation plan. The ruling mirrors a similar May 2020 decision in an earlier stage of the case, which invalidated several other lease sales on the same grounds, and rejected the Trump administration’s attempt to gut the 2015 plan by reinterpreting it to allow leasing millions of acres of the iconic bird’s habitat for fossil fuel development.
Friday’s decision ruled that an additional group of five lease sales in Wyoming and Nevada also violated the 2015 plan. The court also directed that all leases issued during those sales should be vacated but stayed that remedy until any appeals are taken from the ruling. In the meantime, however, the court ordered that no work developing or obtaining production from any of the leases can take place.
The 2015 sage grouse conservation plan was the result of a historic effort that brought to the table conservationists, sportsmen, representatives for ranching and industry, and government officials. The 2015 plan required BLM to prioritize new oil and gas leasing outside of sage-grouse habitat. In December 2017, however, the Trump administration reversed course and “reinterpreted” the prioritization requirement to claim that it placed no limits on new leasing.
The decision Friday came in a lawsuit filed by Earthjustice on behalf of the Montana Wildlife Federation, The Wilderness Society, National Audubon Society, National Wildlife Federation, and Montana Audubon.
The May 2020 decision in the case is currently awaiting a ruling in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
“This decision reaffirms that the Trump administration violated federal law in selling off critical sage-grouse habitat for fossil fuel development,” said Michael Freeman, senior attorney for Earthjustice’s Rocky Mountain office. “Our public lands belong to us all, and we shouldn’t be putting our iconic species at risk for fossil fuel industry profits.”
Sage-grouse once numbered in the millions across the western United States, but the bird’s populations have plummeted in recent decades. BLM’s 2015 conservation plans aimed to make a listing under the Endangered Species Act unnecessary, by protecting important sage-grouse habitat on public lands in ten western states. One of the key provisions is a requirement to “prioritize” new leasing outside of important habitat, in order to reduce future oil and gas development in that habitat.
In December 2017, however, BLM issued an Instruction Memorandum, which “re-interpreted” the prioritization requirement to effectively eliminate it. Under that policy reversal, BLM has leased millions of acres of sage-grouse habitat for drilling in Montana, Wyoming, Nevada, and other states.
In May 2020, the U.S. District Court in Montana struck down the Instruction Memorandum, as well as three lease sales that applied the approach adopted in the Memorandum.