By Scott Sonner
RENO — U.S. land managers have withdrawn more than 500 square miles (1,295 sq.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 are set to go to auction.
The move came after a judge blocked a Trump administration attempt to curtail protection of habitat for endangered sage grouse in seven states.
The acreage pulled from Tuesday’s auction amounts to more than half of what the Bureau of Land Management initially planned to offer in Nevada.
The withdrawn area roughly corresponds to habitat designated in a 2015 sage-grouse plan completed under President Barack Obama for Nevada and northeastern California.
The downsizing won the agency praise from conservationists who secured the 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 on Oct. 16, U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill in Boise, Idaho, granted a temporary injunction sought by Western Watersheds and others to block those plans after concluding such activities left unchecked were likely to harm the struggling bird species in the West.
The judge’s order required the administration to revert to the more stringent rules adopted under Obama.
The auction of leases in Nevada initially covered 263 parcels across about 850 square miles (2,201 sq. km).
Kemba Anderson, chief of the BLM’s mineral resources branch, said she removed more than half of the proposed lease area from the auction on Oct. 28 “for further analysis to comply with the judge’s order.
Leases for the remaining 380 square miles (984 sq. km) are still scheduled to be auctioned Tuesday. Developers must have such leases before seeking permits for energy exploration on federal land.
The conservation groups have said in a statement that despite minimal industry interest in drilling, the Trump administration has fueled a speculative frenzy by leasing hundreds of thousands of acres of public land in Nevada that is critical for sage grouse.
“This leasing frenzy needs to stop,” said Patrick Donnelly, Nevada state director of the Center for Biological Diversity. “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.”
Trump wants to curtail sage grouse habitat in Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, California and Oregon. Sage grouse territory in Montana, Washington and the Dakotas has not been affected.
Many areas of Nevada taken off the auction block 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.