Washington, DC, May 28, 2019 — The Department of Interior committed major violations when it approved significant Management Plan changes weakening protections for the sage grouse across six western States, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The violations may sideline Interior’s plan to open the habitat of the sage grouse to oil and gas drilling.
The new six-state sage grouse Management Plan for Colorado, Idaho, Nevada/northern California, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming was approved by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) on March 15 of this year. The approving official was Brian Steed, the BLM’s former Deputy Director, who announced his resignation on April 30, six weeks after approving the Management Plan changes. However, decisions to reject numerous citizen protests filed against BLM’s proposals are required by law to be signed off by a Senate-approved BLM Director – a status Steed never achieved.
Under the Federal Vacancies Reform Act, any actions that Steed took have “no force or effect” nor may such action be later “ratified.” Citing this legal infirmity, in a letter today PEER demanded that Interior Secretary David Bernhardt withdraw the six Plan amendments.
“Brian Steed and his boss David Bernhardt have committed another in a series of Interior Department violations of the Federal requirements for making key decisions when a bureau’s Director position is left vacant,” said Peter Jenkins, PEER’s Senior Counsel. “BLM’s recent changes that weakened the protections for sage grouse West-wide were illegal and must be stricken from the books.”
The real-world impact of the invalidity of the Steed/Bernhardt changes to the Plans is that management of BLM lands will return to the much stronger sage-grouse conservation measures in the pre-existing Plans. Those were developed in 2015 by the Obama Administration after long consultations with stakeholders aimed at avoiding an Endangered Species Act listing for the bird. They imposed comprehensive restrictions which, while not perfect in the view of some experts, aimed to prevent the damage to the species’ key habitats caused by fracking and other oil and gas drilling, as well as other BLM activities.
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In contrast, loosening drilling restrictions on sage grouse habitat has been a key part of BLM’s role in pushing President Trump’s “Energy Dominance” agenda.
“By attempting to evade the constitutional requirement of advice and consent by the U.S. Senate, the Trump administration may have shot itself in the foot,” Jenkins added, noting that the White House has yet to nominate a BLM Director. “Not only are the Administration’s sage grouse moves illegal but, since they may not later be ratified, Team Trump must go back to square one.”