By Marc Campopiano and Max Friedman
Following the May 28, 2015 release by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) of 14 final Environmental Impact Statements (EISs) for land use plans designed to provide greater protection to the greater sage-grouse on approximately 50 million acres of BLM-managed land in 10 different western states, more than 40 environmental groups, industry organizations, states, and counties have filed formal complaints with the BLM, protesting various aspects of the plans. BLM aims to provide sufficient state and federal protection for the greater sage-grouse to avoid the need for a listing of the species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Such a listing could have a significant impact on the livestock, mining, and oil and gas industries in a number of western states.
Environmental groups, including a coalition of the Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity, WildEarth Guardians, the Prairie Hills Audubon Society, and the Western Watersheds Project, protested all of BLM’s plans, claiming that the BLM failed to implement its own scientific findings. They argue that loopholes in the rules for oil and gas producers and for transmission lines will render the rules ineffective and afford the sage grouse insufficient protection. Moreover, the differences among the various plans for the different states reflect, they suggest, a series of political compromises, rather than the implementation of the best scientific understanding. The coalition also questioned whether the BLM would, in fact, act to implement the plans that it had put in place with these plans.
Another group, Defenders of Wildlife, filed a separate series of objections, focusing on the absence of designated sage brush reserves and protected winter habitat from the BLM’s plans and on the idea that the protected areas surrounding grouse breeding grounds (known as leks) were too small to be effective. Other environmental groups like the Environmental Defense Fund, however, praised the plans as a substantial improvement over the prior legal landscape.
Industry and agricultural groups have similarly seen a wide range of reactions to the proposed rules. The Western Energy Alliance, which represents nearly a quarter of the nation’s oil and natural gas producers, challenged the BLM’s plans primarily because they may impose significant restrictions on oil and gas producers that will make it difficult for future development to take place in sage-grouse habitat. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and Public Lands Council also filed eight distinct challenges to the plans on behalf of ranchers across the West. They argue that the BLM and the U.S. Forest Service are bound by mandate to pursue multi-use land management and argue that the sage-grouse plans thwart the productive use of their lands. They further assert that well-managed grazing practices can actually be beneficial to the grouse population.
Several states, including Utah and Idaho, have also filed challenges. By contrast, Wyoming has been generally supportive of the BLM’s efforts to avoid a listing for the grouse under the ESA.
Once all protests and other comments have been received, the BLM will review the comments over the course of the next several months before issuing records of decision (RODs) for each of the plans, thereby implementing the land-use plan amendments. The goal is to have these RODs completed by August 2015, which will give the FWS time to respond to the plans’ implementation ahead of that agency’s September 30 2015 deadline for determining whether listing under the ESA is necessary and advisable.