POWELL— A federal judge in Montana has vacated an instructional memorandum issued by the Bureau of Land Management related to sage grouse, forcing the agency to cancel 440 oil and gas leases that had brought in more than $125 million in 2018 sales.
The State of Wyoming stands to lose as much as $44 million from the leases and Gov. Mark Gordon said he plans to consider “legal options to remedy this matter.”
BLM officials can re-list and sell the land again in the future, but the agency must conduct a 30-day public comment period, rather than the 10-day period used in the 2018 sales.
The Trump administration has been pushing for more energy development on public land, including directives that roll back or eased restrictions imposed by the Obama administration and a 2015 collaborative effort aimed at keeping the grouse from being listed for protections under the Endangered Species Act.
Last week’s decision from U.S. District Court Brian Morris of Great Falls canceled leases covering more than 336,000 acres on public lands in Wyoming, Nevada and Utah.
It came in response to a lawsuit filed by Earthjustice on behalf of the Montana Wildlife Federation, the Wilderness Society, National Audubon Society, National Wildlife Federation and Montana Audubon.
“This court ruling reaffirms that the administration has continued to act in bad faith,” said Brian Rutledge, director of the National Audubon Society’s Sagebrush Ecosystem Initiative. “A deal’s a deal, and you can’t simply bulldoze the hard fought agreements built across the West to protect the sage grouse. We’re hopeful that this will lead to the reversal of similarly illegal oil and gas giveaways in more states.”
U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., expressed disappointment that the court sided with “environmental activists.”
“This decision fails to properly acknowledge all the hard work that has been done to protect the greater sage grouse by those on the ground who know what works best,” he said.
Gov. Gordon said that, under existing policies, leasing public lands in the state for potential oil and gas development does not threaten sage grouse habitat.
“The state has clearly defined restrictions on drilling that accompany habitat leases,” Gordon said. “In what is already a very uncertain time in terms of revenue for Wyoming, Judge Morris’ decision spells major economic implications for our state. The sad thing here is this decision does nothing for the bird, and it may undermine the voluntary and cooperative work Wyoming citizens have been willing to do to protect this species.”
He called the decision “a slap in the face to all the efforts that have been undertaken in good faith to protect the species.”
In Wyoming, “we have spent over $200 [million] on habitat conservation, research and other actions meant to maintain this iconic species,” Gordon said. “At the same time, our ranchers, oil and gas companies, miners, and other citizens and industries have helped develop protections that put the species first. This has led to considerable increases in cost and some opportunities lost for those partners.”