Court Blocks Trump’s Plan to Ease Bird Protections on Oil Lands

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WASHINGTON — A federal judge on Wednesday blocked the Trump administration’s plan to ease protections for an iconic bird that makes its home on millions of acres of oil and gas-rich sagebrush lands, dealing a blow to government efforts to allow more drilling, mining and logging in the west.

Judge B. Lynn Winmill of the United States District Court for the District of Idaho granted a preliminary injunction that suspends efforts by the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Land Management to weaken protections for the bird, known as the greater sage grouse, in ten states.

While the halt is temporary, the judge indicated that the environmental organizations that brought the legal challenge — arguing that the Interior Department failed to consider reasonable alternatives and did not thoroughly examine the environmental consequences of its actions — is likely to prevail.

“Under these weakened protections, the B.L.M. will be approving oil and gas leases, drilling permits; rights of way for roads; pipelines and power lines; coal and phosphate mining approvals and livestock grazing permit renewals,” Judge Winmill wrote. “It is likely that these actions will cause further declines of the sage grouse under the weakened protections.”

The Interior Department argued that new leasing is not going to happen immediately, but Judge Winmill said, “the Court disagrees.” The Trump administration’s plan, he wrote, was “designed to open up more land to oil, gas, and mineral extraction as soon as possible. That was the expressed intent of the Trump Administration and then-Secretary Ryan Zinke. There is no indication that current Secretary David Bernhardt is proceeding at any slower pace.”

The decision is the first major legal ruling on the Trump administration’s plan to lift protections for the sage grouse. It represents a significant win for environmental activists, who have criticized it as a giveaway to the oil and gas industry that would devastate the nesting habitat of the bird.

“This is an important reprieve for a bird that’s really the canary in the coal mine for a spectacular and vanishing ecosystem of the American West,” said Michael Saul, a senior lawyer at the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group.

Nicholas Goodwin, a spokesman for the Department of Interior, called the Trump administration’s plan “legally sound” and said it balanced the needs of states while protecting the environment.

“Western States involved in the 2019 greater sage-grouse conservation plans overwhelmingly supported the plans on a bipartisan basis, which we firmly believe to be in the best interest of the American people,” he said in a statement.

Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, an association of independent oil and gas companies, dismissed in a statement the ruling as coming from a judge she said had been “an activist on sage grouse issues for more than a decade.”

She said industry groups “have options in other courts that we’ll be exploring in the next days and weeks.”

The immediate effect of the ruling is that a previous sage grouse plan from 2015, during the administration of former President Barack Obama, is now reinstated until a court makes a final ruling on the legality of the Trump administration’s plan.

Under that plan, oil and gas drilling was banned or limited in 10.7 million acres where the bird lives, on lands located within “sagebrush focal areas.”

The Trump administration’s plan aims to limit that designation to all but 1.8 million acres, mostly in Oregon and Montana.

The sage grouse plan was one in a series of moves by the Trump administration to promote oil and gas drilling on public land, in support of what President Trump has called a policy of American “energy dominance.”

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