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Judge Nixes Drilling Leases Across 400k Acres Of Sage Grouse Habitat

Mark Thonhoff

A federal judge last week suspended oil and gas leases across more than 400,000 acres of public lands in the Mountain West, citing the federal government's failure to account for drilling's impacts on greater sage grouse.

U.S. Chief Magistrate Judge Ronald Bush ruled Wednesday that the Bureau of Land Management violated the National Environmental Policy Act when it issued the leases in Montana and Wyoming in 2017. He wrote that the agency fell short in providing an "adequate explanation of why it failed to consider the reasonable alternative of deferring priority greater sage-grouse habitat."

New well pads, pipelines and storage tanks are all big threats to the ground-dwelling, chicken-sized bird, a species that's suffered an 80% population decline across its range in the West since 1965, according to recent research by the U.S. Geological Survey.

Michael Saul, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the organizations that challenged the leases in court in 2018, says the sage grouse is an "indicator species."

"It's a metaphorical canary in the coal mine for the survival of 300 other species of birds, mammals and other creatures that rely on a healthy sagebrush ecosystem," Saul said.

A Bureau of Land Management spokesperson declined to comment.

Bush's decision means the agency needs to redo parts of the environmental review – specifically, he wrote, "analyze in better detail the site-specific impacts of the lease sales on greater sage-grouse."

Last year, in a related ruling, Bush cancelled oil and gas leases across 800,000 acres of BLM lands in Nevada, Utah and Wyoming, saying the Trump administration had illegally curtailed public comment.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Nate Hegyi is a roving regional reporter for the Mountain West News Bureau, based at Nevada Public Radio. You can reach him at natehegyi@protonmail.com.

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