CHEYENNE — Under the direction of Gov. Mark Gordon, the Wyoming Attorney General’s Office joined Idaho and the Department of the Interior this week in appealing a federal judge’s decision to halt implementation of sage grouse land-use rules promoted by the Trump administration.
The appeal comes two months after a federal judge in the District Court of Idaho ordered a preliminary injunction to stop new amendments to sage grouse protection rules from taking effect.
The lawsuit, filed by several environmental groups, argues the Bureau of Land Management, at the direction of the Trump administration, amended its protections for sage grouse in a way that failed to evaluate climate change impacts, removed protections for the bird and opened up its habitat to the energy industry.
Ultimately, U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill agreed with the plaintiffs and ordered a preliminary injunction on the new rules.
“The record shows that the 2019 Plan Amendments were designed to open up more land to oil, gas and mineral extraction as soon as possible,” Winmill wrote in his October decision. “That was the expressed intent of the Trump administration and then-Secretary (of the Interior) Ryan Zinke.”
In a statement provided to the Tribune Eagle, Gordon said he was disappointed in the judge’s decision, arguing lawsuits like this one serve no benefit to sage grouse.
“The 2019 Plan Amendment did not substantively change greater sage grouse protections,” Gordon said. “It better aligned the BLM with what Wyoming has had in place.”
Gordon noted Wyoming’s Sage Grouse Implementation Team has worked for more than a decade to develop plans to manage sage grouse habitat. Bob Budd, an ecology expert who serves as chairman of that team, said the amendments aimed to catch issues that “fell through the cracks” while not changing much for the state.
“The vast majority of (the amendments) were aimed strictly at clarifications, so why would you not support that as a state?” Budd asked. “We aren’t rolling back protections or doing anything like that.”
Budd noted Wyoming has had its own sage grouse plan since 2008. If the judge allows the 2015 plan to stay on the books, it would make things “clunkier” for the state, Budd said.
“For us, (the 2015 plan) just makes it more difficult to do things that we all want to do,” he said.
Yet others argue the new rules do more than just provide clarity. Erik Molvar, executive director of the Western Watersheds Project, which is one of the organizations involved in the case, argued even the rules adopted in 2015 were too weak to adequately protect sage grouse populations.
He said the Trump administration’s proposed rules go further to eliminate remaining protections, like the seven-inch grass height requirement on grazing land to provide adequate hiding for sage grouse.
“(The new rules) provide clarity that the level of sage grouse protection will be significantly less than it was under the Obama plans, which were already scientifically inadequate,” Molvar said.
He said he would like to see the buffers around sage grouse habitats expanded to four miles, rather than the 0.6-mile buffer currently in place in Wyoming. Molvar also noted Wyoming has a 5% disturbance limit, while every other state has a 3% disturbance limit.
“Wyoming has the weakest protections for sage grouse under the federal plans, even though we have the biggest population of sage grouse of any state,” Molvar said.
Though it still has the highest number of sage grouse of any state, Wyoming has seen its population drop by about 44% since 2016, according to calculations made by WyoFile.
Budd said the team was doing everything it could to reverse the trend, though he noted population cycles among the birds sometimes occur naturally.
“It’s not something that hasn’t happened in the past,” Budd said. “It’s how these birds do.”
Molvar agreed that natural population cycles partially explain the decline, though he added the 2015 plans have done nothing to improve the conditions of the bird’s habitats.
“We need to turn this around and get sage grouse populations on an upward swing, or we’re going to end up with the sage grouse on the endangered species list,” Molvar said.
Gordon and Budd both said they would be watching the case closely as it goes to the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals for review.
Molvar, meanwhile, said his group is taking a step-by-step approach in court to ensure adequate protections are restored. For his group, the first step is to get rid of the Trump administration plans, while the second step is to improve the protections laid out in the 2015 plan.