BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — The Trump administration has completed a review of plans to ease protections for a struggling bird species in seven states in the U.S. West, but there’s little time to put the relaxed rules for industry into action before President-elect Joe Biden takes office.
The ground-dwelling, chicken-sized greater sage grouse has been at the center of a long-running dispute over how much of the American West’s expansive public lands should be developed.
A federal judge blocked the Trump administration in 2019 from its plans to relax rules on mining, drilling and grazing across millions of acres of land because of potential harm to the sage grouse.
After releasing an environmental study in November aimed at justifying the changes, U.S. Bureau of Land Management officials said in a notice Monday that they stand behind their plans.
But the ruling that blocked the changes is still in place. And with just eight days left before Biden’s inauguration, environmentalists said the Trump administration’s latest move won’t change anything, barring a last-minute reversal by the court.
“It’s a nothing burger. It’s a parting shot on the way out the door,” said Greta Anderson with Western Watershed Project, one of the group’s involved in the legal case. “We don’t expect the Biden administration to defend these terrible plans.”
Sage grouse once numbered in the millions but have seen their range that stretches across portions of 11 states diminished by oil and gas drilling, wildfires, grazing and other pressures.
The Obama administration, with Biden as vice president, adopted restrictions in 2015 meant to protect the best grouse habitat and keep the bird off the threatened and endangered species list.
Under Trump, the Interior Department in 2017 began to ease the restrictions on drilling, mining and other activities and adopted new land use plans for the seven states in 2019. Months later, the changes were blocked — and the Obama plans restored — by U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill in Boise, Idaho.
Bureau of Land Management officials did not reply to emailed questions about whether they will ask Winmill to lift his injunction.
The Trump administration changes would have affected public land in Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, California and Oregon. Sage grouse territory in Montana, Washington and the Dakotas would not be affected.