The Progressive


A project of Common Dreams

For Immediate Release

Laird Lucas, Advocates for the West, (208) 342-7024,  
Greta Anderson, Western Watersheds Project, (520) 623-1878,  
Michael Saul, Center for Biological Diversity, (303) 915-8308,
Sarah McMillan, WildEarth Guardians (406) 549-3895,

Acting Interior Secretary Bernhardt Sued for Gutting Sage Grouse Plans

BOISE, Idaho

Conservation groups sued acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and the Bureau of Land Management in federal court Tuesday over their recent decisions to gut protections for greater sage grouse across millions of acres of public land in the West.

"The Trump administration is gutting sage-grouse protections on at least 50 million acres of public lands without admitting what they're doing," said Laird J. Lucas, lead attorney for the plaintiffs with Advocates for the West. "Today's lawsuit exposes these actions as violating bedrock federal laws and flouting the extensive body of science on what sage grouse need to survive."

Bernhardt, President Trump's nominee to replace Ryan Zinke as Interior secretary, is a former lobbyist and attorney for oil and gas, coal mining and other industries. He's been criticized for using his position to favor those industries, including by opening millions of acres of sensitive lands to fossil fuel development.

"We've tried to improve the 2015 plans by providing the agency with the best science and substantive recommendations," said Greta Anderson, deputy director of Western Watersheds Project. "The loopholes and exemptions built into the earlier plans were vulnerable to being exploited, but now they've been expanded into all-out industry giveaways, backroom decision-making, and weakened habitat protections. It's very discouraging to see these plans being crippled in light of still-declining populations."

Greater sage grouse once occupied hundreds of millions of acres across the West, but populations have plummeted as oil and gas development, livestock grazing, roads and powerlines and other actions have destroyed and fragmented their native habitats. To avoid Endangered Species Act listing, the BLM and U.S. Forest Service adopted sage-grouse plans in 2015 that identified key areas for protection and limited development there.

Today's lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Boise, identifies Bernhardt as the architect of recent policy changes adopted by the Trump administration to rescind or weaken the 2015 plans on BLM land in seven states with most of the remaining sage-grouse populations -- Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, Nevada, California and Oregon.

"Trump and his oil-industry buddies have declared open season on the vanishing sage grouse and the West's remaining sagebrush landscapes," said Michael Saul, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. "This administration can't ignore the law, even if it wants to ignore science. We'll do everything possible to keep this beloved bird off the path to extinction."

The challenged plans created enormous loopholes that make it easier for fracking and drilling near the imperiled bird's prime habitat. The lawsuit notes that these changes were sought by the oil and gas industry, beginning in July 2017, and that Bernhardt and BLM have misled the public about the nature and extent of the changes.

"We knew that this administration was deeply enmeshed with fossil fuel production, but we're shocked that they are willing to sacrifice the sagebrush sea and the many plants and animals found there, not to mention to long-term impacts to climate disruption, while squandering public resources for private profit," said Sarah McMillan, conservation director at WildEarth Guardians.

In 2016 the groups challenged the plans as not doing enough for sage grouse. The complaint filed today seeks to supplement that case to challenge the recent Trump administration rollbacks. The groups are represented by Advocates for the West, a nonprofit, public-interest law firm based in Boise.


As many as 16 million greater sage grouse once ranged across 297 million acres of sagebrush grasslands, a vast area of western North America known as the Sagebrush Sea.

Over the past 200 years, agriculture, oil and gas drilling, livestock grazing and development have reduced the grouse's range by nearly half, and sage grouse populations have steadily declined. Today sage grouse are found in 11 western states: California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.

The greater sage grouse is under threat because it is intensely loyal to particular areas, reliant on large expanses of intact sagebrush, and is especially sensitive to disturbance and habitat fragmentation. It also needs sufficient vegetation cover and nutrition to raise chicks, unaltered mating grounds called "leks" for reproduction, and sufficiently healthy winter habitat to survive the cold season.

Protecting the grouse and its habitat benefit hundreds of other species that depend on the Sagebrush Sea ecosystem, including pronghorn, elk, mule deer, golden eagle, native trout, and migratory and resident birds.

The BLM is responsible for managing about half of the remaining sage grouse habitat. After years of inaction and then prompted by a 2011 decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the bird for protection under the Endangered Species Act, the agency initiated sage-grouse protection planning.

This unprecedented five-year effort, led by the Department of the Interior, resulted in land-use plans with new measures to protect the bird. The Fish and Wildlife Service's decision not to list the greater sage grouse as endangered was predicated on the assumption that the public-land-management plans would be implemented and would reverse the decline of the grouse.

At the Center for Biological Diversity, we believe that the welfare of human beings is deeply linked to nature — to the existence in our world of a vast diversity of wild animals and plants. Because diversity has intrinsic value, and because its loss impoverishes society, we work to secure a future for all species, great and small, hovering on the brink of extinction. We do so through science, law and creative media, with a focus on protecting the lands, waters and climate that species need to survive.

(520) 623-5252