BOISE, ID, Oct. 26, 2018— The Bureau of Land Management this week pulled more than 1 million acres of greater sage-grouse habitat in Montana, North Dakota, Wyoming, Utah and Colorado from December oil and gas lease sales to comply with a federal court order.

The auctions were planned using a new Trump administration policy that sharply curtails public participation in oil and gas leasing decisions on public lands. In September a judge halted implementation of that policy for future leases across sage grouse habitat areas in 11 western states. The rare birds are gravely threatened by drilling.

“We’re pleased the BLM is following the judge’s ruling and at least temporarily protecting large swaths of greater sage-grouse habitat,” said Taylor McKinnon of the Center for Biological Diversity. “But the Trump administration is doing everything it can to put millions of acres of public lands into the fossil fuel industry’s hands. This fight is far from over.”

The BLM has now postponed more than 1 million acres of sage-grouse habitat from its December oil and gas lease auctions, including 578 parcels totaling approximately 775,000 acres in Wyoming. The agency is expected to post its Nevada sale notice today, removing even more acres of sage-grouse habitat.

“Elk, mule deer and pronghorn antelope need the same habitat the sage grouse do,” said Kelly Fuller, energy and mining campaign director for Western Watersheds Project. “BLM should remove the sage-grouse habitat from leasing permanently to protect seasonal habitats and migration corridors so the wildlife that rely on those public lands can survive. Oil and gas drilling on sage-grouse habitat means goodbye grouse and big game.”

In January the BLM issued an “instruction memorandum” telling staff to accelerate oil and gas leasing by cutting back environmental reviews and eliminating mandatory public comment periods. A motion for preliminary injunction, filed by Advocates for the West on behalf of Western Watersheds Project and the Center for Biological Diversity, challenged the policy as an unlawful attempt to cut public involvement in BLM leasing decisions.

“The record contains significant evidence indicating that BLM made an intentional decision to limit the opportunity for (and even in some circumstances to preclude entirely) any contemporaneous public involvement in decisions concerning whether to grant oil and gas leases on federal lands,” U.S. Chief Magistrate Judge Ronald E. Bush said in his ruling.

“The court found that BLM’s deliberate efforts to cut the public out of public lands decision-making likely violate its statutory mandate to provide for public involvement,” said Sarah Stellberg with Advocates for the West. “We appreciate the much-needed reprieve for the greater sage grouse, but until BLM reinstates public comment and protest opportunities for all oil and gas lease sales, its actions will continue to violate the law.”

The preliminary injunction is part of a broader lawsuit challenging BLM’s federal oil and gas leasing practices across five western states and covering almost 2 million acres of key greater sage-grouse habitat.

The iconic and imperiled western bird has lost approximately 95 percent of its population and almost half of its habitat since Euro-American settlement. Greater sage grouse are intensely loyal to specific seasonal areas and reliant on large expanses of undisturbed sagebrush habitat. Oil and gas development in their remaining habitat poses a significant threat to the species’ continued existence.