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Sage Grouse Once Again At Heart Of Public Lands Dispute

A new lawsuit claims the Trump Administration is illegally favoring the oil and gas industry while endangering sage grouse habitat. 

It's the latest continuation of a saga for a bird that has much greater implications for the way public lands are managed throughout the West. 

In 2015, an agreement was reached between the federal government, environmentalists and ranchers alike to keep the iconic Western bird off the endangered species list. 

It was a compromise that no one at the table was fully satisfied with, but an agreement nonetheless. One that took nearly a decade to reach.

That was then. Last week, the Trump Administration released a plan that seeks to set aside some obstacles to development on public land and continue to allow leasing land for oil and gas companies to complete exploratory drilling. 

The court action from the Center for Biological Diversity and Western Watersheds Project seeks to undo these policies and recent leasing decisions. 

Patrick Donnelly is the Nevada State Director for the Center for Biological Diversity. 

“The Trump Administration has been flagrantly violating the terms of those agreements," Donnelly said, "In particular, our lawsuit is addressing oil and gas leasing.”

Donnelly said under the agreement leases were not supposed to be given to core habitat areas but he said the administration has ignored that and leased all the acres of land that the industry has requested.

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While the industry agreed to the protection plan in 2015, Donnelly said it has seen an "in" with the Trump Administration and is working to violate the agreement. 

On top of that, Donnelly said the deputy director of the Department of the Interior working on the issue is a former lobbyist with the oil industry.

"We actually have someone who represented the oil industry for many years making these fundamental decisions about how oil and gas leasing plays out on our public lands,” he said.

The Bureau of Land Management said its goals with the new plan is to "increase management flexibility, maintain access to public resources and promote conservation outcomes." 

Donnelly disagreed strongly with those goals.

“What they call flexibility I would call loopholes big enough to drive an oil tanker through,” he said.

He said acres of land in Nevada has already been leased through exemptions and waivers. He said those leases aren't just a piece of paper -- they have real-world consequences.

“When you get an oil lease, you are then permitted to go out on the land and build roads and drill test holes and this is happening right now across the state,” he said.

The decision to lease out the land could have a long-term impact on more than just the oil and gas industry.

The 2015 plan kept the sage grouse off the endangered species list, but if the population of the grouse continues to decline then it could be put on the list.

“Ultimately, if the status quo continues, the sage grouse will continue to decline across its range and at some point, down the line, Fish and Wildlife will have no choice but to list the bird,” Donnelly said.

Listing the bird would force major changes to how land across the West is managed, Donnelly said. For instance, ranching has a big impact on sage grouse habitat.

“The listing of the bird could see ranches shut down because ranching allotments need to be closed and that is an outcome that many Nevadans would find negative," he said.

Donnelly said tearing up the agreement could have a long-lasting impact.

And for conservationists like Donnelly, it is not just about the chicken-sized sage grouse. It is about the bigger impact industry can have on Nevada's ecosystem.

“The sage grouse is a great indicator of the health of our Great Basin ecosystem," he said, "So, while we advocate strongly for the protection of the sage grouse what we’re really advocating for is the protection of the sagebrush ecosystem that dominates much of Nevada and this provides habitat for hundreds of species.”

Guests

Patrick Donnelly, Nevada State Director, Center for Biologival Diversity