Victory! Court Halts Further Oil and Gas Drilling in Critical Sage-Grouse Habitat

11th of Jun 2021

Advocates for the West is celebrating another sweeping win to protect the imperiled sage-grouse from oil and gas drilling approved by the Trump Administration. Our Staff Attorney Sarah Stellberg masterfully handled this case on behalf of clients Center for Biological Diversity and Western Watersheds Project, along with Executive Director Laird Lucas.
On Wednesday, U.S. Magistrate Judge Ronald E. Bush suspended new drilling and fracking on 605 federal oil and gas leases spanning 403,820 acres of greater sage-grouse habitat in Wyoming and Montana. He held that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) violated federal law in approving the leases without assessing baseline data about the bird’s populations in the lease areas, analyzing site-specific and cumulative impacts to the grouse, or considering reasonable alternatives—like not allowing oil and gas leasing in grouse priority habitats, as required by 2015 sage-grouse plans adopted under the Obama Administration, which the Trump BLM unlawfully tried to rescind.

“The Trump Administration blatantly violated federal law in its zeal to open public lands to oil and gas drilling, as this decision confirms,” said Lucas. “As the court found, the imperiled sage-grouse is particularly harmed by oil and gas development yet the Trump BLM refused to acknowledge those impacts and misled the public. It is time for the Biden Administration to abandon these unlawful Trump decisions.” 

Wednesday’s order is our latest win in our 2018 lawsuit challenging the Trump Administration’s “energy dominance” agenda for public lands management, focused on protecting greater sage-grouse from oil and gas leasing and extraction. The bird’s population has declined precipitously and has become the focus of nationwide conservation efforts. A 2020 orderinthe same case voided another 677 leases covering 1 million acres of sage-grouse habitats, and rejected a Trump BLM policy shutting out public participation in leasing decisions.

“This continues a long string of legal victories that are key to the survival of the imperiled greater sage-grouse and the vanishing sagebrush ecosystem,” said Michael Saul, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s another stunning defeat for the Trump Administration’s serial lawbreaking policies. This spectacular bird has been spared to dance another day across the Montana and Wyoming landscape.”

Some of the challenged leases are in the nation’s highest-density sage-grouse concentration areas, including the “Golden Triangle” in the Upper Green River Valley and the northern Red Desert areas of Wyoming—the state with the largest remaining grouse habitats, which are essential to protect if the sage-grouse is to avoid Endangered Species Act listing, as BLM itself has previously admitted.

“Instead of prioritizing oil and gas leasing and development outside designated sage-grouse habitats, the Trump Administration targeted some of our nation’s most ecologically sensitive public lands for drilling and fracking, without even considering the consequences,” said Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist and Executive Director of Western Watersheds Project. “This ruling sends a very strong message that the BLM can no longer lease public lands for fossil fuel development without weighing the outcomes for sensitive lands and wildlife.”

The sage-grouse is under threat because it is intensely loyal to particular areas, relies on large expanses of intact sagebrush, and is especially sensitive to disturbance and habitat fragmentation. It also needs enough vegetation cover and nutrition to raise chicks, and healthy winter habitat to survive the cold season.

Greater sage-grouse once occupied hundreds of millions of acres across the West, but their populations have plummeted as oil and gas extraction, livestock grazing, roads, power lines, and other human impacts have destroyed and fragmented their native habitats. 

Protecting this magnificent bird and its habitat also benefits hundreds of other species that depend on the Sagebrush Sea ecosystem, including pronghorn antelope, elk, mule deer, golden eagles, native trout, and migratory and resident birds. The BLM is responsible for managing more than half of the nation’s remaining sage-grouse habitat.

As a result of Wednesday’s order, prior to allowing any new development on the leases, the BLM must undertake full environmental analyses and consider alternatives including holding off on leasing high-priority habitats for the greater sage-grouse.

Read the Court’s Decision


On Wednesday, just as we received news of this latest win for sage-grouse, Staff Attorney Andrew Missel argued before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to affirm Judge Bush’s earlier decision denying a motion by oil and gas giant Anschutz Exploration Corp. to intervene in the case, when not only the BLM but also the State of Wyoming and the Western Energy Alliance—an oil and gas trade association of which Anschutz is a member—were already parties defending the Trump leases. Missel summed up the case in his own words, saying:

“Anschutz stood by for years as we challenged the legality of the Trump BLM oil and gas lease sales at which they had purchased leases. When we won a big victory in February 2020 that vacated the first round of lease sales, Anschutz tried to jump into the case, arguing it was shocked that we had won. The law does allow for nonparties to intervene to protect their interests in certain situations, but Anschutz waited too long and its interests were fully represented by its own trade association, WEA, as well as the state of Wyoming, so the District of Idaho correctly denied its attempt to intervene.”

“It’s hard to say which way the appeals court will come out on the Anschutz intervention request, but it’s worth noting that the panel zeroed in on one of the key problems with Anschutz’s case that we identified: the company can’t articulate what it would add to the case if it were allowed to intervene. This only underscores the strength of the case that Staff Attorney Sarah Stellberg and others have put together in the District of Idaho, and I was honored to argue the appeal before the 9th Circuit.”