Judge cancels oil and gas leases on some sage grouse lands

FILE - In this May 9, 2008, file photo, male sage grouses fight for the attention of females southwest of Rawlins, Wyo. A federal judge has cancelled more than $125 million worth of oil and gas leases that were sold on public lands inhabited by the declining bird species greater sage grouse. The ruling Thursday, Feb. 27, 2020, said the Trump administration illegally curtailed public comment on the sales. (Jerret Raffety/The Rawlins Daily Times via AP, File)
FILE - In this May 9, 2008, file photo, male sage grouses fight for the attention of females southwest of Rawlins, Wyo. A federal judge has cancelled more than $125 million worth of oil and gas leases that were sold on public lands inhabited by the declining bird species greater sage grouse. The ruling Thursday, Feb. 27, 2020, said the Trump administration illegally curtailed public comment on the sales. (Jerret Raffety/The Rawlins Daily Times via AP, File) (Rawlins Daily Times)

BOISE, Idaho – A federal judge has cancelled more than $125 million in oil and gas leases on public lands that are home to the declining bird species greater sage grouse, in a ruling that said the Trump administration illegally curtailed public comment.

The ruling doesn't stop drilling already underway in areas with sage grouse, but it could help protect the birds from future activity.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Ronald Bush's ruling out of Boise, Idaho, covers leases issued by the federal Bureau of Land Management in 2018 on more than 1,300 square miles (3,400 square kilometers) in Nevada, Utah and Wyoming,

The case is part of a broader effort by environmentalists challenging the administration's oil and gas leasing practices within the habitat of the ground-dwelling greater sage grouse.

The birds that range across 11 Western states have suffered sharp population declines in recent decades due to development, disease, drought and wildfires.

Future leases in greater sage-grouse habitat must allow a 30-day public comment and administrative protest period, Bush ordered. The Trump administration had reduced the protest period to just 10 days, which critics said gave them too little time to meaningfully react to proposed sales.

The ruling means any future sales on more than 100,000 square miles (270,000 square kilometers) of sage grouse habitat also would require the longer public comment period, according to Talasi Brooks with the Western Watersheds Project, one of the groups that challenged the lease sales with a federal lawsuit.

“It's a real win for public process and transparency in federal decision making," Brooks said. “It could change the outcome potentially. The government could say after hearing public comment, ‘This is potentially important habitat.'"