Sage grouse

Greater sage grouse gather at a lek in northern Campbell County in 2019. Males posture and strut to attract females during the spring mating season. After selecting a mate, the females will likely move to nearby sagebrush to nest.

CHEYENNE — A judge has halted plans for oil and gas drilling on vast areas of Wyoming and Montana, citing concerns about a sagebrush-dwelling bird.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management didn't adequately consider how the drilling would affect the greater sage grouse, nor an option to defer drilling in the bird's prime habitat, Idaho U.S. District Judge Ronald E. Bush ruled Wednesday.

Bush ordered more study of potential effects on the bird before drilling may proceed.

The drilling would occur on over 600 square miles of federal land scattered across the energy-rich states. The Bureau of Land Management auctioned off hundreds of leases in sage grouse habitat in four sales in 2017.

Sage grouse are a chicken-sized, primarily ground-dwelling bird whose numbers have fallen significantly from the millions that inhabited the U.S. West in frontier times. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined in 2010 that the bird deserved special protection but said in 2015 that conservation efforts led by Wyoming made that unnecessary.

The environmental group that sued over the leases praised Bush's ruling.

“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,” Erik Molvar, executive director of Western Watersheds Project, said in a statement Thursday.

The federal agency and two allies in the case, the state of Wyoming and the Western Energy Alliance industry group, didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.

The ruling comes amid a federal oil and gas leasing moratorium imposed by President Joe Biden's administration while it studies the effects on climate change.

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