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Bernhardt Sued for Gutting Sage Grouse Plans
“The Trump Administration is gutting sage-grouse protections on at least 50 million acres of public lands without admitting what they are doing,” said Laird J. Lucas, lead attorney for the Plaintiff groups with Advocates for the West. “The lawsuit today exposes these actions as violating bedrock federal laws and flouting the extensive body of science on what sage-grouse need to survive.”
Bernhardt is President Trump’s nominee to replace Ryan Zinke as Secretary of Interior, and is a former lobbyist and attorney for oil and gas, coal mining, and other industries. He has been criticized for using his position to favor those industries, including by opening millions of acres of sensitive lands to fossil fuel development.
“We’ve tried to improve the 2015 plans by providing the agency with the best science and substantive recommendations,” said Greta Anderson, Deputy Director of Western Watersheds Project. “The loopholes and exemptions built into the earlier plans were vulnerable to being exploited, but now they’ve been expanded into all-out industry giveaways, backroom decision-making, and weakened habitat protections. It’s very discouraging to see these plans being weakened in light of still-declining populations.”
Greater sage-grouse once occupied hundreds of millions of acres across the West, but populations have plummeted as oil and gas development, livestock grazing, roads and powerlines, and other actions have destroyed and fragmented their native habitats. To avoid Endangered Species Act listing, BLM and the Forest Service adopted Sage-Grouse Plans in 2015 that identified key areas for protection and limited development in them.
“Trump and his oil industry cronies have declared open season on the vanishing sage grouse and the West’s remaining sagebrush landscapes,” said Michael Saul, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “This administration can’t ignore the law, even if it wants to ignore science. We’ll do everything possible to keep this beloved bird off the path to extinction.”
The lawsuit filed today identifies Bernhardt as the “architect” of recent policy changes adopted by the Trump Administration to rescind or weaken the 2015 plans on BLM lands in seven states – Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, Nevada, California, and Oregon – that have most of the remaining sage-grouse populations.
The challenged plans create enormous loopholes that make it easier for fracking and drilling near the imperiled bird’s prime habitat. The lawsuit notes that these changes were sought by the oil and gas industry beginning in July 2017, and that Bernhardt and BLM have misled the public about the nature and extent of the changes.
“We knew that this administration was deeply enmeshed with fossil fuel production, but we’re shocked that they are willing to sacrifice the sagebrush sea and the many plants and animals found there, not to mention to long-term impacts to climate disruption, while squandering public resources for private profit,” said Sarah McMillan, Conservation Director at WildEarth Guardians.
The groups are represented by Advocates for the West, a non-profit public interest law firm based in Boise. The groups previously challenged the 2015 Plans as not doing enough for sage-grouse, and the complaint filed today seeks to supplement that case to challenge the recent Trump Administration roll backs.
As many as 16 million greater sage grouse once ranged across 297 million acres of sagebrush grasslands, a vast area of western North America known as the Sagebrush Sea.
Over the past 200 years, agriculture, oil and gas drilling, livestock grazing and development have reduced the grouse’s range by nearly half, and sage grouse populations have steadily declined. Today sage grouse are found in 11 western states: California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.
The greater sage grouse is under threat because it is intensely loyal to particular areas, reliant on large expanses of intact sagebrush, and is especially sensitive to disturbance and habitat fragmentation. It also needs sufficient vegetation cover and nutrition to raise chicks, unaltered mating grounds called leks for reproduction, and sufficiently healthy winter habitat to survive the cold season.
Protecting the grouse and its habitat benefits at 350 other species that depend on the Sagebrush Sea ecosystem, including pronghorn, elk, mule deer, golden eagle, native trout and nearly migratory and resident bird species.
The Bureau of Land Management is responsible for managing about half of the remaining sage grouse habitat. After years of inaction and then prompted by a 2011 decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the bird for protection under the Endangered Species Act, the BLM initiated sage grouse protection planning.
This unprecedented five-year effort, led by the Department of the Interior, resulted in land-use plans with new measures to protect the bird. The Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision not to list the greater sage grouse as endangered was predicated on the assumption that the public land management plans would be implemented and would reverse the decline of the grouse.