A federal judge has blocked the BLM from implementing its plan to weaken protections for sage grouse—and open more land to oil and gas drilling and livestock grazing—in seven Western states, including Idaho.
Judge B. Lynn Winmill issued an order Wednesday in federal District Court in Boise granting a preliminary injunction against the plans in a lawsuit brought by four environmental groups, including Hailey-based Western Watersheds Project.
The suit had initially challenged 15 environmental impact statements issued in 2015 covering sage-grouse plans in 10 states. The groups contended that the BLM and Forest Service minimized potential harm to sage grouse by segmenting their analysis into 15 subregions without conducting any rangewide evaluation.
In August 2019, the BLM issued amendments to the plans to better align them with plans developed by the states. The environmental groups sought to enjoin the BLM from implementing those amendments.
In his decision, Winmill wrote that an important criterion for ruling on a request for a preliminary injunction is to determine whether the plaintiffs are likely to succeed on the merits of the case.
“Certainly, the BLM is entitled to align its actions with the State plans, but when the BLM substantially reduces protections for sage grouse contrary to the best science and the concerns of other agencies, there must be some analysis and justification—a hard look—in the NEPA documents,” Winmill wrote. “It is likely that plaintiffs will prevail on their claim that this hard look was not done with respect to all six EISs challenged here … .
“Here, the six EISs at issue are State specific despite clear evidence in the record that the sage grouse range covers multiple states and that a key factor—connectivity of habitat—requires a large-scale analysis that transcends the boundaries of any single State.”
Winmill also ruled that the plaintiffs would likely succeed in showing that the 2019 plan amendments contain substantial reductions in protections for sage grouse without justification, that the EISs failed to comply with a National Environmental Policy Act requirement that reasonable alternatives be considered, and that the EISs failed to contain a sufficient cumulative impacts analysis as required by NEPA.
The decision enjoins the BLM from implementing the 2019 sage-grouse plan amendments for Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Nevada/northeastern California and Oregon, until the court can adjudicate the claims on their merits. The 2015 plans will remain in effect during that time, the decision states.
“This ruling throws a wrench into the Trump administration’s efforts to weaken protections for the greater sage grouse, a species that is declining West-wide,” said Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist and executive director of Western Watersheds Project. “Every boost of protection we can get for sage grouse and their habitats helps hundreds of other types of plants and wildlife that depend on the sagebrush sea, from elk to pygmy rabbits to golden eagles.”
Idaho Gov. Brad Little’s office did not respond by press deadline Thursday to a request by the Idaho Mountain Express for a comment on the ruling.