A U.S. District Court judge for the District of Nevada last Friday ruled that the federal government may proceed with plans to protect the sage grouse habitat in the state after a supplemental environmental impact statement (EIS) on the programs is completed.
As result, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in Nevada and the U.S. Forest Service will be obligated to complete the supplemental EIS on a habitat area of more than 2.8 million acres that is part of a larger, six-state area encompassing 10 million acres of sagebrush.
The additional environmental work will encompass Eureka and Humboldt counties, which spawned the legal action. They are part of legal action filed in 2015 along with mining companies, challenging the approval that year of thesage grouse protection efforts.
Competing motions by the counties and companies, along with the U.S. Interior Department, were denied in part and granted in part. Judge Miranda Du granted a summary judgment in favor of the Interior Department, but she also granted a summary judgment to the two counties on their claim that federal agencies had failed to comply with the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA).
The federal agencies were taken to federal district court because of their efforts to amend resource management plans (RMP) to provide greater protections to the sage grouse, the ground-dwelling birds whose protection has proven to be a major political, economic and environmental issue for 11 western states and the subject of concerted efforts from the oil/natural gas industry and western state governors in recent years.
The court agreed with the plaintiffs that Interior, BLM, et al., "failed to comply" with NEPA and ordered the supplemental EIS, but denied plaintiffs' request to enjoin implementation of the agencies' RMPs pending the added environmental work.
While some environmental attorneys don't see the judge's ruling as affecting implementation of the sage grouse protection plans, there are questions in the environmental community and federal agencies about the broader effect of the Trump administration's rollback of regulations, particularly ones that get in the way of domestic energy development.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, a former congressman from Montana, has voiced strong opposition to many federal plans. Last month he told the western ranchers' advocacy organization, the Public Lands Council, that the Interior Department "hasn't’ been the best neighbor," and he predicted that ranchers would like changes he envisions for sage grouse protection plans.
“We’re going to manage our properties just like you [ranchers] would manage your private lands,” Zinke said. “Washington, DC, needs to understand that we work for the people, not the other way around.”