Sage grouse court order trims energy lease auction in Nevada

RENO, Nev. (AP) — Federal land managers have withdrawn more than 500 square miles (1,295 sq. kilometers) of public land from a swath of eastern Nevada where oil and gas drilling leases go to auction this week after a judge blocked the Trump administration's attempt to ease protection of sage grouse habitat.

The acreage pulled from Tuesday's scheduled sale — more than half of what the Bureau of Land Management originally planned for auction — roughly corresponds to priority habitat designated in a 2015 federal sage-grouse plan completed under President Barack Obama for Nevada and northeastern California.

The move won the agency rare praise from conservationists who secured the federal court order in Idaho last month.

"Taking sensitive sage-grouse habitats off the auction block is the right thing for the BLM to do, because public lands that aren't leased for fossil fuel extraction don't suffer from future industrial impacts," said Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist and executive director of the Western Watersheds Project.

The Trump land-use plans finalized in March had removed the most protective sage grouse habitat designations across millions of acres. Administration officials also dropped requirements to prioritize leasing for oil and gas outside sage grouse habitat and allowed more waivers for drilling.

But last month, U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill in Boise, Idaho, granted a temporary injunction sought by the Western Watersheds and others to block those plans after concluding such activities left unchecked were likely to harm the struggling bird species in seven Western states. His Oct. 16 order required the administration to revert to the more stringent rules adopted under Obama.

The Bureau of Land Management posted formal notice Sept. 13 for the Nov. 12 auction of leases in Nevada covering 263 parcels across about 850 square miles (2,201 sq. km).

Kemba Anderson, chief of the agency's branch of mineral resources, formally removed more than half of the proposed lease area from the auction "for further analysis" on Oct. 28 in order to comply with the judge's order.

Leases for the remaining 380 square miles (984 sq. km) still are scheduled to be auctioned Tuesday. Developers must possess leases before seeking permits for energy exploration on federal land.

The conservation groups said in a statement last week that despite minimal industry interest in drilling, the Trump administration has fueled a speculative frenzy by leasing hundreds of thousands of acres of sensitive public land in Nevada critical to grouse.

Many areas taken off the auction block, at least for now, are within the traditional homeland of the Shoshone and Paiute tribes, including the head of the Ruby Valley and the neighboring Maverick Mountains, the Egan Range and neighboring Steptoe Valley, in the headwaters of Spring Valley and in Jakes Valley.

"The BLM's partial reprieve for this beautiful, imperiled bird is a good first step," said Patrick Donnelly, the Center for Biological Diversity's Nevada state director. "But this leasing frenzy needs to stop. Leasing Nevada's public lands out for oil and gas threatens the survival of greater sage-grouse, as well as our scarce groundwater and our chance at a livable climate."

The Trump rules affected public land in Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, California and Oregon. Sage grouse territory in Montana, Washington and the Dakotas was not affected.