Researchers look over a sage-grouse lek at sunrise, preparing to observe behavior and count birds. 2011 Deseret Land and Livestock Ranch. Woodruff, Utah. (Photo by by Shawn Lentz)

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A federal ruling that protects habitat of the threatened sage grouse from oil and gas development is being called a victory for conservationists and interagency collaboration. 

“This is a real win for public process and transparency in federal decision making,” said Talasi Brooks, staff attorney for the Western Watersheds Projects.

The chief U.S. magistrate annulled oil and gas leases on over 1,300 square miles federal land  that is sage-grouse habitat in Utah, Nevada, and Wyoming. The ruling didn’t include those leases that are already in the process of drilling. 

The Trump administration sold those leases after pulling out a widely celebrated interagency agreement to protect the sage grouse. The agreement, called the Sage Grouse Initiative, was called a common-sense approach to protecting the sage grouse while not having to list it as endangered, which would have triggered stricter rules, including a hunting ban.

The court also reinstated the 30-day public review and protest periods that were removed or reduced from BLM’s previous 2018 Instruction Memorandum (IM2018-34)  

“Public involvement in oil and gas leasing is required under FLPMA [The Federal Land Policy and Management Act] and NEPA [The National Environmental Policy Act],” Judge Bush noted.

“Federal agencies…permit members of the public to weigh in with their views and thus inform the agency decision-making process,” he added.

The Bureau of Land Management’s attempt to streamline the permitting by cutting the public’s input out of the planning process goes against one of the core tenets of the USDA’s Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI) partnership. The partnership was supported with farm-bill funding. 

BLM, which routinely works with local ranchers and farmers, is a key SGI member, owning over half of the public land that contains critical sage-grouse habitat.

Steve Lewis, an educator with the University of Nevada Cooperative said, “There’s always a degree of art that goes into natural resource management. This is where local perspectives are very important. They act as eyes and ears necessary for the art of managing natural resources.”

The lawsuit highlights the larger, ongoing sparring match between the Trump administration’s desire to expedite domestic natural resource extraction and the need to protect habitat for the threatened greater sage grouse. 

Outdoor groups are feeling anxious about the possibility of the grouse being put on the Endangered Species Act (ESA) list. The Sage Grouse Initiative avoided that listing in return for additional protections for prime grouse habitat.

Researchers band and radio-collar a female Greater Sage-Grouse. 2011 Lyman, Utah. (Photo by Shawn Lentz)

“There is concern what a listing would bring,“ said John Gale from Backcountry Hunters and Anglers (BHA).

“I think a listing decision for sportsmen and women would be bad, but it would also be detrimental to ranchers and farmers, the oil and gas industry and everyone else that uses these lands. Really, an ESA listing decision is only good for the bird. It forces them to improve habitat conditions, to recover the bird’s population numbers.”  

According to Gale, the listing could impact big game hunting, as well as livestock producers, grazing practices and rangeland conditions as well.

While resource extraction and its infrastructure pose serious risks to sage grouse and other wildlife, an ESA listing could lock up millions of acres, jeopardizing around $1 billion that sportsmen, hikers, campers and other outdoor enthusiasts help generate in sage-grouse territory. 

Hunting seasons for sage grouse have already been severely reduced. Wyoming, boasting a population of over 600,000 sage grouses, has a short two-week season, while Nevada has closed sage-grouse hunting in five different counties. Utah requires a special permit and has a three-week season.

Sage-grouse hunting season restrictions are also being felt in other states, such as Idaho. Jack Connelly, a retired Fish and Game biologist explained: “In the early 1990s, Idaho hunters enjoyed a 30-day season with a bag limit of three grouse a day . . . in 2019 hunters in eastern Idaho had a two-day season with a one bird daily limit.”

Federal lands such as those administered by BLM and U.S. Forest Service are mandated for multiple-use. Those uses include recreation, resource extraction, and managing for wildlife habitat. 

Drilling for oil and gas is allowed, and revenue means to boost local rural economies through jobs and local spending. Schools in these communities benefit as well.

Big Oil is a local economic driver in these states, but the interplay between opening more lands to drilling, maintaining the way of Western rural life, and protecting the greater sage grouse gets contentious – even between conservation partners.

The 2015 plan revisions under the SGI partnership, which kept sage- grouse from being listed under the Endangered Species Act, was a highly celebrated milestone. 

The lauded collaboration consisting of federal and state agencies, environmental groups, hunting and ranching organizations, land trusts, private corporations, and various universities was successful. 

However, an ESA listing for the greater sage grouse could be imminent in 2020. A final determination for the listing status of the Bi-State Distinct Population Segment of Greater Sage-Grouse, in Nevada/California will be issued by April 1, 2020. 

Ed Arnett, a senior scientist with Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership previously commented on the ESA listing and a lawsuit filed by Western Energy Alliance, during the implementation of the 2015 sage-grouse plans.

“Some litigants contend that a listing would have been better than all these draconian federal plans. That’s absurd. Think about what comes after ESA designation of critical habitat. Does anyone really believe that would be less onerous?” Arnett said at the time.

More litigation is almost certain. But proponents of the sage-grouse initiative hope they can continue to work with local landowners to improve habitat while keeping oil and gas out of critical sage-grouse areas.