Conservation groups say the U.S. Bureau of Land Management broke the law when it approved eight large oil and gas lease sales in Utah, Idaho, Montana, Nevada and Wyoming, and filed suite earlier this week in federal court.
The sales came after the agency rolled back protections for greater sage grouse habitat and cut opportunities for the public to have a say in how public lands are managed. Laird Lucas, with the group Advocates for the West and lead attorney on the case, said so far under the Trump administration he's only seen the pendulum swinging toward energy development without regard for wildlife.
"We're trying to get the pendulum to go back,” Lucas said, “because that's what the laws say, that you have to have a balance there. And this administration is not acting in accordance with the law. We need to have balance in how public lands are managed."
After a decade of work by federal, state and local leaders along with ranchers, energy companies and other stakeholders, a comprehensive land-use plan was put in place to keep the iconic sage grouse – whose populations have declined by as much as 95 percent from historic levels – off the endangered species list. Some industry groups argue the plan overestimated the impacts from energy production, and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has pushed to remove restrictions for development on public lands in order to achieve energy dominance.
Lucas said there are plenty of places on public or private lands to drill for oil and gas without encroaching on habitat that the sage grouse and more than 350 other species depend on.
"There are millions of acres of federal leases that are held by oil and gas companies that are not being developed,” Lucas said. “Awarding more leases now does not make sense, particularly where it threatens really sensitive wildlife habitats."
In the 1970s, Congress adopted laws for how public lands should be managed by the BLM, requiring the agency to use the best available science and allow the public to play a meaningful role in planning and land-use decisions. Lucas said he hopes the federal judge in the Boise U.S. District Court will agree that the B-L-M has violated what he calls bedrock environmental laws.