By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily
A federal judge is blocking the development of more than 400,000 acres of oil and gas leases in Wyoming and Montana, ruling the U.S. Bureau of Land Management did not adequately consider the impact of development on the region’s sage grouse.
U.S. District Judge Ronald Bush, in an order from his Idaho court issued Wednesday, ruled that the Western Watersheds Project was correct in its assertion that the BLM did not fulfill its obligations under the National Environmental Protection Act in approving development of the leases.
“BLM … failed to consider the reasonable alternative of deferring priority sage grouse habitat … failed to take a hard look at the direct and indirect impacts to greater sage grouse, and … failed to take a hard look at the cumulative impacts on greater sage grouse,” he wrote.
However, Bush also declined to vacate the leases themselves, as requested by Western Watersheds, because he found the BLM could solve the problems identified without nullifying the leases.
The ruling stems from oil and gas leases covering 334,000 acres in Wyoming offered in February, June and September of 2017 in Wyoming and covering about 69,000 acres in Montana offered in June of 2017.
Some of the parcels of land offered for sale included sage grouse habitat and as a result, some parcels were removed from the sale offering.
When preparing an environmental assessment to judge the impact of development of the lands, the BLM examined two options — one for full development of all the remaining land and one for no development. It found the development could proceed.
But Western Watersheds sued, saying the BLM violated the NEPA by failing to examine an option that would have removed more sage grouse habitat from development and failed to examine the direct and indirect effects of development on sage grouse habitat.
Western Watersheds offered alternatives to the BLM’s two options that proposed removing parcels from lease sales that contained priority sage grouse habitat, the decision said, but they were rejected.
Bush wrote that the BLM did not adequately explain why it rejected Western Watersheds’ proposed alternative.
“BLM violated NEPA by failing to provide an adequate explanation of why it failed to consider the reasonable alternative of deferring priority greater sage grouse habitat,” he wrote.
Bush blocked development of any of the lease parcels until the BLM can resolve the issues identified in the ruling.