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Auction delay

Male sage grouses fight for the attention of females in 2008 southwest of Rawlins. Because of the bird's habitat, the Bureau of Land Management will delay leasing the majority of the land proposed for an upcoming oil and gas auction in Wyoming until early next year.

In deference to Wyoming’s most famous bird, the Bureau of Land Management will delay leasing the majority of the land proposed for an upcoming oil and gas auction in Wyoming until early next year.

The Bureau of Land Management is pulling about 778,000 acres of land from its December lease sale following an Idaho court decision that questioned whether the Trump administration’s accelerated pace for leasing oil and gas gives the public enough time to review industry activity where sage grouse live — both the bird’s most crucial areas and its general habitat.

That leaves just three parcels of federal land up for auction in Wyoming.

Leasing has taken off under the Trump administration. The BLM has tried to shorten timelines and cut red tape for development on federal land in a victory for industry at a time when crude pricing is improving. But the change has not been missed by environmental groups, which accuse the administration of disregarding its own rules and ignoring the multi-use edict of public land. In Wyoming this discord has focused at times on sage grouse, given the bird’s presence in potential oil and gas areas and the multilayered protections that exist for the bird.

Sage grouse were nearly listed as an endangered species three years ago due to habitat and population losses. Wyoming has been a main player in building strategies to balance the bird’s remaining habitat with interests like mineral development and ranching. An endangered species designation for sage grouse could deal a significant blow to Wyoming’s fossil fuel economy.

The Interior Department is suggesting a number of changes to federal protections — built on the foundation of Wyoming’s work — but the process is incomplete. The final analysis of those amendments and how they would impact Wyoming is expected from the BLM in December.

The leasing delay announced this week comes from an Idaho court decision, part of a larger lawsuit from environmental groups trying to block Trump’s changes.

“It is well-settled that public involvement in oil and gas leasing is required ... The question here is whether (the expedited process) sufficiently allows for such public involvement,” the judge wrote in his decision. “The answer must be a complete ‘yes.’ Here, the answer is ‘not quite.’”

Courtney Whiteman, a spokeswoman for BLM in Wyoming, said the land in sage grouse habitat, and those parcels overlapping with habitat, is now under a 30-day public comment period. The BLM will likely hold a sale for those parcels in February after it’s responded to public input, she said.

The delay is a win for environmental groups and conservationists.

“We are just pleased the BLM has decided to comply with the court’s order” said Dan Heilig of the Wyoming Outdoor Council. “It’s important because it restores procedures that were taken away, public comment opportunities that were taken away, by this administration.”

The bird is important and any changes to management of the bird have broad implications on federally managed land, Heilig said.

“It’s just a very important species because of the extent of the habitat and the management prescriptions that are in place now and hopefully will remain in place,” he said.

Leasing for potential oil and gas on federal land can be a significant revenue boon in Wyoming. The BLM splits the income from those leases with the state. Improved prices for crude since the downturn of 2015 have instigated a burst in leasing in Wyoming. A favorable administration in the White House and interest in Wyoming oil and gas plays have also supported this rise.

Last year, the combined leasing income from federal and state land rose by 800 percent.

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Follow energy reporter Heather Richards on Twitter @hroxaner

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Energy Reporter

Heather Richards writes about energy and the environment. A native of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, she moved to Wyoming in 2015 to cover natural resources and government in Buffalo. Heather joined the Star Tribune later that year.

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