Federal oil, gas leases stall over bird concerns in US West
BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — Concerns over a bird that ranges across the American West continue to delay federal oil and gas lease sales, five months after Interior Secretary Sally Jewell proclaimed the Obama administration had found a way to balance drilling and conservation.
The Interior Department announced this week it will defer the sale of almost 60,000 acres of leases that were nominated by companies in eastern Montana as it works on new policies for greater sage grouse.
More than 8 million acres of leases previously were deferred in Colorado, Utah, Nevada, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming. It remains unclear when those will be freed up for sales or removed from consideration.
Jewell said in September that Endangered Species Act protections were not needed for the grouse, a chicken-sized bird that inhabits sage brush ecosystems spread across 11 Western states. Populations declined significantly over the past several decades.
Officials said the decision to forgo protections avoided the need for draconian restrictions on drilling, livestock grazing and other activities that help drive the region's economy.
It followed a sweeping overhaul of federal public land management plans to limit drilling near grouse breeding areas and allowing oil and gas exploration to proceed elsewhere.
But the U.S. Bureau of Land Management still is crafting policies to put those plans into effect, agency spokesman Al Nash said. Completion of that work is several months away, he said.
Montana Petroleum Association executive director Alan Olson said the lease deferrals represent "more excuses not to allow development on public lands."
"When the plans were adopted, I thought that was all supposed to be addressed," he said.
Nash said the BLM was moving forward with plans to sell leases on as many as 93 parcels totaling almost 20,100 acres during an Oct. 18 auction. The parcels are outside sage brush habitat, but had been deferred until the land management plans were completed.
"Each respective plan talks at great length about the need for us to address concerns about the habitat," Nash said. "But the guidance we're going to get goes into detail on how we move forward."
Follow Matthew Brown on Twitter at https://twitter.com/matthewbrownap