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WASHINGTON – A federal judge on Wednesday blocked the Trump administration's plan to ease protections for an iconic bird that houses millions of acres of oil and gas-rich shrubbery, affecting government efforts to allow more drilling, mining and logging in the west.
US District Court Judge B. Lynn Winmill of Idaho District granted an injunction suspending efforts by the Interior Department's Land Administration Department to weaken protections for the bird, known as the Greater Grouse in ten states.
Although the interruption is temporary, the judge indicated that the environmental organizations that filed the legal challenge – arguing that the Interior Department did not consider reasonable alternatives and did not fully examine the environmental consequences of their actions – are likely to prevail.
“Under these weakened protections, B.L.M. will be approving oil and gas leases, drilling licenses; rights of way for roads; pipelines and power lines; coal and phosphate mining approvals and pasture renovations ”, wrote Judge Winmill. "These actions are likely to cause more grouse falls under weakened protections."
The Interior Department argued that new leases would not happen immediately, but Judge Winmill said "the Court disagrees." The Trump administration's plan, he wrote, was "designed to open up more land for oil, gas and minerals extraction as soon as possible. That was the express intention of the Trump administration and then Secretary Ryan Zinke. There is no indication that current secretary David Bernhardt is proceeding at a slower pace. ”
The ruling is the first major legal decision on the Trump administration's plan to lift protections for the wise. It represents a significant victory for environmental activists, who have criticized it as an offer to the oil and gas industry that would devastate the birds' nesting habitat.
"This is an important relief for a bird that is really the canary in the coal mine for a spectacular and missing western ecosystem," said Michael Saul, senior lawyer at Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group.
Interior Department spokesman Nicholas Goodwin called the Trump administration's plan "legally sound" and said it balanced the needs of states while protecting the environment.
"The western states involved in the larger conservation plans for the chicken houses overwhelmingly supported the plans on a two-party basis, which we firmly believe is in the best interest of the American people," he said in a statement.
Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, an association of independent oil and gas companies, rejected in a statement the decision coming from a judge she said was "a grouse activist for over a decade" .
She said industry groups "have options in other courts that we will explore in the coming days and weeks."
The immediate effect of the decision is that a previous 2015 grouse plan during the administration of former President Barack Obama is now reinstated until a court makes a final ruling on the legality of the Trump administration's plan.
Under this plan, oil and gas drilling has been banned or limited to 10.7 million acres where the bird lives on land located within "focal areas of shrubs".
The Trump administration's plan is to limit this designation to nearly 1.8 million acres, mostly in Oregon and Montana.
The wise grouse's plan was one of a series of Trump government measures to promote oil and gas drilling on public lands in support of what President Trump called the "energy mastery" policy of the United States.
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