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Imperiled Sage Grouse Wins Reprieve From Trump Oil-Gas Wells

Gerald Porter Jr.

(Bloomberg) -- The Trump administration’s plan to expand oil and gas drilling in the western U.S. has been put on hold because of the threat to habitat for the greater sage-grouse, a bird with a mating ritual likened to Funky Chicken dance moves.

In a major victory for defenders of the most hotly debated bird since the northern spotted owl, an Idaho federal judge on Wednesday blocked U.S. agencies from loosening restrictions on oil and gas development on land across several states designated by the Obama administration as a critical conservation area for the sage-grouse.

With its population numbers falling dramatically over the last three years, the largest grouse in North America is caught in a fierce fight over President Donald Trump’s efforts to unwind environmental regulations and promote drilling, mining, logging and ranching on public lands. Meanwhile, a recent study shows that avian species in North America are undergoing massive and unsustainable declines -- 3 billion birds lost over the last 50 years.

Debate over whether to list the sage grouse as an “endangered species” goes back to at least 2005. This year, the Trump administration moved to revise protections put in place in 2015, saying it wanted to improve cooperation between federal agencies and state regulators in Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, Oregon and California.

“While this is a purpose well-within the agency’s discretion, the effect on the ground was to substantially reduce protections for sage grouse without any explanation that the reductions were justified by, say, changes in habitat, improvement in population numbers, or revisions to the best science,” U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill wrote in Wednesday’s ruling.

The U.S. Interior Department defended its decision-making in a statement.

"Western States involved in the 2019 greater sage-grouse conservation plans overwhelmingly supported the plans on a bipartisan basis, which we firmly believe to be in the best interest of the American people,” Nick Goodwin, a spokesman for the agency, said in an email. “The previous plans from 2015 ignored the individual needs of states, and the common sense amendments made by the department are legally sound and struck the appropriate balance in effectively managing these important public lands for multiple use."

The sage-grouse is known for its distinctive mating ritual in which males puff up their chests and spread spiky tail feathers. The health of the species is seen as an indicator for other animals living on sagebrush lands.

Winmill’s ruling was hailed by environmental groups that accused the Trump administration of creating loopholes to allow more drilling and fracking.

“The Bureau of Land Management deliberately undermined protections for the sage-grouse, then had the audacity to claim these rollbacks would not impact the species,” Sarah Stellberg, an attorney with Advocates for the West, said in a statement. “The law demands more. This injunction is critical to protecting the sagebrush steppe and this icon of the American West.”

The case is Western Watersheds Project v. Schneider, 16-cv-00083, U.S. District Court, District of Idaho.

(Updates with Interior Department’s comment in seventh paragraph.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Gerald Porter Jr. in New York at gporter30@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: David Glovin at dglovin@bloomberg.net, Peter Blumberg, Steve Stroth

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