Judge saves sage grouse habitat from Trump-era mining plans

In most major land habitats, the abundance of native species, including plants, declined by at least 20 percent. Sage grouse are a prime example in the American West, where their habitat decreased by almost a half since 1960. (Bob Wick/BLM)

A federal judge in Idaho blocked efforts by the Trump administration to remove protections from more than 10 million acres of greater sage grouse habitat to make way for mining projects. 

U.S. District Judge Lynn Winmall granted summary judgment to the Western Watersheds Project on Thursday, finding the Bureau of Land Management failed to provide a legal rationale for the federal government’s sudden about-face on the need to protect the iconic bird’s habitat from hard-rock mining in several areas throughout the American 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 the 78-page ruling. 

When administrations make significant rule changes in their agencies they must provide a legal rationale for doing so. In the present instance, the BLM and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have come to the conclusion that precluding mining from the 10 million-acre area, mostly within Idaho and Nevada, was in the best interest of protecting the greater sage grouse. Those decisions were rendered in 2011 and 2015, respectively. 

But despite the Trump administration’s insistence that the mining footprint in given areas would be relatively minor, Winmall found officials did not sufficiently provide a reason for backtracking on its previous analysis. 

The ruling was celebrated by conservation groups. 

“This ruling is a decisive win for sage grouse and all the other species of wildlife that rely on healthy sagebrush habitats,” said Erik Molvar, executive director with Western Watersheds Project. “Because this particular court has adjudicated so many sage grouse lawsuits, the judge has a command of sage-grouse science and was able to expose the Trump administration’s dismantling of habitat protections as an arbitrary attack on common-sense habitat protections.”

The granting of summary judgment does not automatically reinstall the mining ban, but instead gives the Interior Department a second crack at finalizing its rules. It is unlikely that the Biden administration, which has set about reversing many of Trump’s environmental rollbacks, will pursue overturning the mining ban. 

In fact, conservation organizations want the Biden administration to install even greater protections for the bird. 

“We are hopeful that the new Biden-Harris administration will take the biodiversity crisis seriously and see this decision as a step toward getting greater sage grouse the protection they need in order to thrive,” said Lindsay Larris, wildlife program director at WildEarth Guardians.

The sage grouse has been a flashpoint for battles between wildlife advocates and resource extraction outfits because the decline in the bird population is tied to the encroachment of development and industry onto its habitat. 

Industry groups say the effort to enact habitat protections for a bird with a historical habitat range that extends millions of acres throughout 16 American states and three Canadian provinces would pose an existential threat to all industry that relies on land in the American West.

The stakes being so high, the battle over protections for the rangeland bird have been extremely pitched.

The fight over the distinct population in the sagebrush range along the California-Nevada border has a long history too, both in and out of court and across party lines.

In October 2013, Fish and Wildlife agreed to list the distinct population as threatened, while declaring sagebrush critical habitat. Then in 2015, the agency withdrew the decision, citing science that characterized the threats as no longer significant.

Four conservation groups sued the agency in 2016, saying the withdrawal was not based on the best available science. Last year, a federal court judge ruled in favor of the conservationists and ordered the agency to reconsider withdrawal.

In announcing its latest withdrawal Monday, the agency cited the work of three scientists as support for the theory that conservation measures in place for the last decade are working.

But the Center for Biological Diversity said the conclusion flies in the face of common sense, noting the scientists cited in the decision note that only about 3,000 of the birds remain.

“Failure to protect bi-state sage grouse is pushing them closer to population collapse,” said Ileene Anderson, with the center. “Voluntary agreements won’t save them from extinction.”

Scientists estimate only 200,000 to 500,000 greater sage grouse, which once roamed the western sagebrush landscape by the millions, remain.

The bird uses sagebrush-grassland or juniper-sagebrush-grassland, which proliferate at lower elevations throughout roughly 300 million acres of the American West, as a vital feeding ground. Scientists say residential development, natural resource extraction and cattle grazing in the bird’s natural habitat have led to its precipitous population decline in recent decades.

Although environmental groups petitioned the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife to list the bird as endangered, advocates for the economic interests dependent on the land said such a listing would cripple several industries — much like the listing of the northern spotted owl as endangered hobbled the timber industry in the West.

Obama-era Interior Secretary Sally Jewell led a five-year effort culminating in a compromise seeking to provide sage grouse protections while stopping short of listing it as endangered. All affected states and interested parties signed off on the deal.

Within weeks of President Donald Trump’s inauguration, however, his administration said it would revisit the agreement.