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Legal Action Aims to Block Fracking, Save Utah Sage Grouse

For Immediate Release, October 31, 2017

Erik Molvar, Western Watersheds Project, (307) 399-7910,
Michael Saul, Center for Biological Diversity, (303) 915-8308,
Steve Holmer, American Bird Conservancy, (202) 888-7490,
Sarah Stellberg, Advocates for the West, (208) 342-7024 x209,

Legal Action Aims to Block Fracking, Save Utah Sage Grouse

FILLMORE, Utah— Three conservation groups took legal action today to prevent fracking and drilling on 23 square miles of public land in central Utah. The filing aims to save the country’s most imperiled population of greater sage grouse.

The Bureau of Land Management spent nearly $1 million last year to restore habitat for the Sheeprocks population and is now leasing that critical sage grouse habitat for pennies on the dollar. It’s the latest attack on greater sage grouse under Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who wants to scale back protections to allow more fossil fuel development.

“Zinke and the BLM seem determined to drive this iconic bird to extinction,” said Michael Saul, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “When sage grouse and their habitat are healthy, it benefits a host of other species. The Trump administration’s reckless push for more fracking and drilling threatens to wipe out entire ecosystems.”

The Center for Biological Diversity, Western Watersheds Project and American Bird Conservancy, represented by Advocates for the West, filed an appeal and request for a stay with the Interior Department’s Board of Land Appeals to stop nine oil and gas leases in sage-grouse habitat west of Nephi, Utah.

“Oil and gas drilling and production are known causes of sage grouse habitat destruction,” said Erik Molvar of Western Watersheds Project. “Even the most carefully controlled industrial intrusions at the edges of key habitats can cause grouse to abandon undeveloped habitats up to 3 miles away. Given the precariously low sage grouse population in the Sheeprocks area, the BLM has no business leasing these lands to become a future oil and gas field.”

The conservation groups identified two critical legal flaws with the BLM’s leasing decision. The agency improperly ignored or downplayed the serious harm to sage grouse, mule deer and elk from fracking and drilling in the area; it also ignored requirements in its own sage-grouse plans to prioritize leasing outside of sage-grouse habitat and take conservation actions when population declines reach a certain point.

“The BLM relied on a deeply flawed environmental assessment in approving this lease sale,” said Advocates for the West attorney Sarah Stellberg. “Loss of the Sheeprocks population would be a significant step backward in efforts to avoid Endangered Species Act listing of the greater sage grouse. We’re asking the agency to present a scientifically credible analysis of those impacts—to look before it leaps.”

Sage-grouse habitat is home to more than 350 species, including pronghorn, elk, golden eagle, native trout and nearly 200 other bird species. Over the past 200 years, agriculture, oil and gas drilling, livestock grazing and development have reduced sage-grouse range by nearly half, and the birds’ populations have steadily declined. According to the BLM, the Sheeprocks sage-grouse population declined by nearly 40 percent in just four years.

“American Bird Conservancy believes that the integrity of public lands in the American West should be preserved — and that the administration should keep the promises that were made to save the grouse and its dwindling sagebrush habitat,” said Steve Holmer, American Bird Conservancy vice president.

In 2011 the agency assembled a blue-ribbon panel of sage-grouse experts to recommend land-management strategies that would allow the grouse to survive, and those experts recommended closing priority habitats entirely to oil and gas leasing. The final federal sage-grouse plans, adopted in 2015, fell short of scientists’ recommendations, but committed to prioritizing oil and gas leasing and drilling outside important habitat for the birds. They also included “adaptive management” provisions requiring additional action when populations declined below specified targets.

The abrupt decline of the Sheeprocks population required the BLM to take steps to save the birds and their habitat. But in September the agency offered lands in the area for oil and gas development, resulting in bargain-basement bids of just of $14,837 for three parcels covering 4,102 acres. Reviewing the BLM’s proposed action, renowned sage-grouse expert Dr. Clait Braun said “authorizing oil and gas development in the lease sale area will have a significant adverse impact on the Sheeprocks sage grouse and, given the size of the present population, lead to extirpation.”

Zinke has been a harsh critic of sage-grouse conservation efforts, which cover 10 western states. Earlier this month he formally launched a federal review expected to reduce protections for the greater sage grouse and open the door to more fossil fuel development in the imperiled bird’s vital habitat. He also wants to abandon a proposal to protect 10 million acres of the most important sage-grouse habitat from new hard-rock mining claims.


The mission of Western Watersheds Project is to protect and restore western watersheds and wildlife through education, public policy initiatives and legal advocacy.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.5 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

American Bird Conservancy is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to conserve native birds and their habitats throughout the Americas. It achieves this by safeguarding the rarest bird species, restoring habitats, and reducing threats to bird species.

Advocates for the West’s mission is to win for the West’s natural treasures and wildlife.

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