A federal judge blocked the Administration’s plans allowing expanded livestock grazing as well as mining and drilling activities across 51 million acres of greater sage-grouse habitat in seven western states: Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, Nevada, California and Oregon.
In December of 2018, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) published Final Environmental Impact Statements (FEISs) on revisions to the 2015 Obama-era sage grouse Resource Management Plan Amendments (RMPAs). These changes were hailed by the livestock industry as a more workable solution than the 2015 plans. In April, Western Watersheds Project, WildEarth Guardians, Center for Biological Diversity, and Prairie Hills Audubon Society filed suit against the BLM and moved for preliminary injunction.
In his order granting a preliminary injunction, U.S. District Court Judge B. Lynn Winmill ruled that the administration failed to analyze how sage grouse would be harmed under the March 2019 land-use plans. “Certainly, the BLM is entitled to align its actions with the State plans, but 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 – in the NEPA documents,” he wrote.
“This is yet another example of advocacy from the bench,” said Public Lands Council President Bob Skinner. “The claims lodged by the plaintiffs are not based in science. 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 added, “These professional environmental litigants care less about genuine conservation of the sage grouse and more about pushing livestock off of federal lands. This narrow-minded worldview is precisely what prompted the BLM to undertake these revisions in the first place. In the end, science must determine the outcome of this suit.”
The environmental groups noted that recent population estimates from multiple state wildlife agencies show that grouse populations are plummeting. This adds urgency to the need to ensure that sage grouse and their habitats are protected.
The grouse is under threat because it is intensely loyal to particular areas, reliant on large expanses of intact sagebrush and especially sensitive to disturbance and habitat fragmentation. It also needs sufficient vegetation cover and nutrition to raise chicks, unaltered mating grounds called “leks” for reproduction, and sufficiently healthy winter habitat to survive the cold season.