The U.S. District Court for the District of Idaho will maintain a 2015 policy aimed at protecting millions of acres in the western United States along with the keystone species Greater Sage Grouse. The move temporarily puts a stop to an attempt by the Trump Administration to amend the policy.
In 2017, then-Interior Department Secretary Ryan Zinke signed an order aiming to "improve sage grouse conservation by strengthening communication and collaboration between states and the federal government." The department finalized six new environmental impact statements in 2019.
Four environmental groups challenged the 2019 amendments arguing they made common errors including failing to consider range-wide analysis, failing to evaluate climate change impacts, and removing protections to sage grouse that were unjustified by science.
In December, Michael Saul, senior attorney with plaintiff and environmental group Center for Biological Diversity, said the amendments would weaken 2015 land designations making it easier for energy companies to find exemptions to develop on public lands.
"They all make it easier to drill wells or graze cows in sage grouse habitat and they all make it less certain that sage grouse will survive," Saul said in December of last year.
Judge B. Lynn Winmill sided with the environmental groups by ordering a preliminary injunction and stopping any forward progress of the 2019 amendments. The proposed changes would have pulled affected protections on millions of acres in seven western states including Wyoming, Nevada, and Colorado.
"The 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," the judge wrote.
The judge highlighted that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) failed to consider cumulative impacts, failed to consider reasonable alternatives, and would have eliminated the compensatory mitigation requirements.
One issue for the judge was that that BLM did not resolve issues raised by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), including that its state-focused analysis meant there was little cumulative impact analysis.
Sarah Stellberg, staff attorney for the Advocates of the West representing the plaintiffs, the environmental groups, said there were many deficiencies that led to the amendments not progressing forward.
"[The BLM] ignored criticism from the Environmental Protection Agency and other experts. And they falsely claimed that many of the changes would actually benefit sage grouse when there was no evidence for that," Stellberg said.
She said this is a glimmer of hope for sage grouse, but it won’t reverse the downward trend in population. It is, though, a meaningful decision to environmentalists.
"This case is great for sage grouse, but it also is a signal to the administration that they can't shortcut basic environmental laws in the process of trying to advance their energy dominance agenda," Stellberg said.
The injunction will remain in place until a court decides the plaintiffs challenge of the 2019 amendments based on its merits.
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This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City, KUNR in Nevada and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.