Montana Gov. Steve Bullock has asked a district court to shelve three large-scale plans that would open most federal lands in the state to oil and gas development, arguing they were invalidated when a federal court ruled the Trump administration’s top public lands official was serving illegally.

Department of the Interior Bureau of Land Management

U.S. District Judge Brian Morris of the District of Montana ruled in late September that William Perry Pendley, the acting director of the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM), had served unlawfully for more than a year and blocked him from continuing in the position. Bullock then filed the lawsuit against Pendley and Interior Secretary David Bernhardt.

Morris provided Interior officials and Bullock an opportunity to respond to the ruling. The court asked both to detail which acts under Pendley should be set aside. 

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 alleges that, under Pendley’s leadership, federal officials rejected residents’ concerns about the amount of land that could be subject to drilling and the related elimination of conservation protections.

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. However, Bullock said he intends to focus on Pendley’s work in Montana. The BLM manages more than 245 million acres of public land primarily in the 11 western states and Alaska. 

A coalition of 60 conservation groups, led by the National Audubon Society and the National Wildlife Federation, listed 30 site-specific decisions across several western states that it said could be challenged under the Pendley ruling.

BLM, meanwhile, rejected the assertion that Pendley served illegally as its top official. BLM plans to appeal the court decision and ask the court to leave in place all decisions under Pendley’s leadership. BLM noted that Bullock had not disputed the land-use plans before they were finalized and said there was no legal justification to do so now.

President Trump in June nominated Pendley for the post, which requires Senate approval. 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. Pendley had been functioning as BLM director since July 2019, following his designation by Bernhardt.

“Pendley has not been nominated by the president and has not been confirmed by the Senate to serve as BLM director,” Morris said in the ruling. “Secretary Bernhardt lacked the authority to appoint Pendley as an acting BLM director.”

Trump could designate a formal acting BLM director, Morris wrote, but short of that, only Bernhardt “can perform functions or duties of the BLM director.” The judge added that “any ‘function or duty’ of the BLM director that has been performed by Pendley would have no force and effect” and could be set aside as “arbitrary and capricious.”