A federal judge on Thursday invalidated an effort by the Trump administration to expand mining across 10 million acres of critical sage-grouse habitat in Idaho and five other Western states, drawing praise from a number of conservation groups.
In his memorandum decision and order filed last week, Idaho District Judge B. Lynn Winmill wrote that the Bureau of Land Management—an agency within the U.S. Department of the Interior—failed to provide a “reasoned explanation” for lifting its own plans to ban hard-rock mining in designated sage-grouse habitat.
In October 2017, then acting BLM Director Michael Nedd initiated the cancellation of the agency’s 2015 sagebrush habitat conservation plans, calling its proposed ban on mining across 10 million acres in the West a “complete overreach.”
Last week’s court ruling, however, found the BLM’s reversal of its mining ban in violation of the Administrative Procedures Act, which governs how federal agencies develop regulations. The violation claim was initially brought by Hailey-based Western Watersheds Project and three other conservation groups represented by Advocates for the West.
“The court finds that the reasons given do not provide the reasoned explanation needed to support the BLM’s change in position regarding the need for the withdrawal, rendering the cancellation decision arbitrary and capricious,” Winmall wrote in last Thursday’s order.
Winmill noted that the BLM’s 2015 sagebrush conservation plans were one reason the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service denied the greater sage grouse protections under the Endangered Species Act that same year. In footnotes, he also wrote that “mining and associated infrastructure in sagebrush habitats result in direct habitat loss” for sage grouse, and “habitat fragmentation can magnify the decline of sage grouse populations.”
Thursday’s court decision does not reinstate the BLM’s original mining ban, but rather directs the agency to evaluate appropriate protections for sagebrush focal areas using up-to-date research.
“This decision is a stinging rebuke of the Trump administration’s total disregard for fact and science,” said Sarah Stellberg, an attorney with Advocates for the West, in a press release. “It’s also a crucial win for sage grouse, who now more than ever need the protections this  mining ban would provide.”
The iconic sage grouse used to roam across hundreds of millions of acres in the American West, but the birds’ numbers have declined more than 90% due to oil and gas drilling, wildfires, human encroachment, agricultural use and many other factors.
The robust, ground-dwelling birds are best known for their bizarre mating rituals at leks—or designated breeding grounds—where males inflate their yolk-like air sacs and wave their spiked tail feathers to attract females. The rituals kick off in March at the same location, year after year, allowing researchers to not only count the birds but also assess the quality of sagebrush habitat used by mule deer and other species.