A federal judge has invalidated key land use plans in Montana that were approved under former Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Acting Director William Perry Pendley, a decision that could imperil land use decisions elsewhere and pave the way for a deluge of litigation from environmental groups.


The ruling issued last Friday was the second substantial decision in the case in the span of a few weeks. U.S. District Judge Brian Morris of the District of Montana ruled in late September that Pendley had served unlawfully for more than a year. Morris blocked him from continuing in the acting position at BLM, which is part of the U.S. Department of Interior.

After the first decision, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, who filed the lawsuit against Pendley and the Interior, asked Morris to shelve three large-scale plans that would open most federal lands in the state to oil and gas development. Bullock argued the plans were invalidated when Morris ruled that Pendley, who for more than a year was the Trump administration’s top public lands official, served illegally.

Bullock, a Democrat who is running for the Senate, maintains that all actions undertaken during Pendley’s 424 days atop BLM are open to legal challenge in the wake of the court’s ruling.

While Morris provided Interior 10 days to make the case against tossing the decisions Pendley made during his tenure, he wrote in his most recent order “it remains probable that additional actions taken by Pendley” should also “be set aside as unlawful.”

Morris said he would not rule beyond parties to the case filed in his court, but his latest decision opens the door for new lawsuits across BLM’s vast western territory. The BLM manages more than 245 million acres of public land primarily in the 11 western states and Alaska. 

Bullock requested that Morris invalidate the Lewistown and Missoula resource management plans (RMP), along with a Miles City RMP amendment approved by BLM in 2019. The governor alleged that, under Pendley’s leadership, federal officials hastily rejected residents’ concerns about the amount of land that could be subject to drilling and the related elimination of conservation protections.

Morris, in his latest decision, ruled that Pendley did not have authority to resolve dozens of protests that were filed against the RMPs. 

Morris noted in his September ruling that President Trump had nominated Pendley for the post, which requires Senate approval, but the president withdrew the nomination after Pendley was widely criticized by Democrats in Congress for his advocacy of selling federal lands and his dismissals of climate change. The judge concluded that Pendley had been functioning as BLM director since July 2019, following his designation by the head of the Interior. But Morris said only the president can legally name an acting director.

The Interior Department vowed to appeal. In a post on the BLM website, the bureau and Pendley now maintain that Pendley was never acting director but instead deputy director of policy and programs, a title under which he continues to work. In that job, Pendley said that the secretary of the Interior had given him the authority to exercise the “delegable, non-exclusive duties and functions of the director.” The BLM said this is a common scenario in the federal government.

A coalition of environmental groups has issued a list of 30 land management plans overseen by Pendley that it wants overturned. The plans are mostly to open more federal lands to oil and gas drilling. The coalition also has vowed to file lawsuits in other jurisdictions.

“Pendley never should have been allowed to set foot in the building, much less approve these disastrous plans that industrialize our public lands,” said the Center for Biological Diversity’s Taylor McKinnon, a senior campaigner for one of the environmental groups that make up the coalition. “We’ll go to court to make sure Pendley’s illegal decisions end up in the dumpster where they belong.”

The environmental groups are seeking to invalidate plans and other projects that open 30 millions of acres of public lands to oil and gas drilling, mining and grazing in Montana, as well as Arizona, California, Colorado, Wyoming, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Idaho and Utah.  

“Judge Morris got it right when he declared Pendley’s appointment to head the BLM illegal, and pointed out that decisions made under Pendley’s direction were likewise unlawful,” said Western Watersheds Project’s Erik Molvar, executive director. The environmental group is another member of the coalition. “We’re going to keep working to overturn these illegal decisions through other legal filings.”