Bernhardt sued for gutting sage grouse protections

Former oil lobbyist violated federal law, environmental groups allege

The greater sage grouse is under threat because it is reliant on large expanses of intact sagebrush.
Photo courtesy of the BLM

Four conservation groups sued Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and the Bureau of Land Management last week in Idaho federal court over their recent decisions to gut protections for greater sage grouse across millions of acres of public land in the West. The groups are Western Watersheds Project, Center for Biological Diversity, Wild Earth Guardians and Prairie Hills Audubon Society.

“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 exposes these actions as violating bedrock federal laws and flouting the extensive body of science on what sage-grouse need to survive,” he said in a press release from the groups.

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.

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, the conservation groups allege. 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.

The lawsuit filed March 27 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.

“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 last week 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.

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,” said the press release.

“Protecting the grouse and its habitat benefits at least 350 other species that depend on the Sagebrush Sea ecosystem, including pronghorn, elk, mule deer, golden eagle, native trout and migratory and resident bird species.

The BLM 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, said the press release.