Group Sues Interior for Stonewalling Release of Sage-Grouse Public Documents

Western Values Project Seeks Documents Related to Pro-Industry Requests to Sage-Grouse Protection Plans

Whitefish, MT. — Western Values Project filed suit in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia against the Interior Department, Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Bureau of Land Management for unfulfilled public records requests pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act. Western Values Project has sought — and thus far been denied — documents related to the administration’s actions rolling back sage-grouse habitat protection plans-  changes which came directly at the request of the oil and gas lobby.

View Western Values Project’s (WVP) complaint here. (Case No. 19-cv-1755)

“Lobbyists and special interests are running the show at Interior, so it’s no wonder the Trump administration re-wrote the sage-grouse plans in secret,” said Jayson O’Neill, deputy director of the Western Values Project. “Secretary Bernhardt’s has well-documented conflicts of interest on sage-grouse decisions and we know that many of his former extractive resource clients will benefit from how he gutted habitat protections. We are committed to shedding light on what could be another egregious example of the culture of corruption at Interior.”

The Interior Department, Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) have failed to fulfill six public records requests from WVP regarding the sage-grouse decision-making processes well beyond the statutorily required timeline. The BLM announced in March 2019 its final amendments to the cooperative 2015 sage-grouse conservation plans in seven Western states.

Under Interior Secretary David Bernhardt’s leadership, BLM has been making fundamental changes to land use plans and is granting oil and gas leases in sage-grouse habitat, along with eliminating habitat designations and other important protections that are the “foundation” of the FWS’s 2015 decision to not list sage-grouse as endangered.

Many of these proposed changes come directly from the oil and gas lobby’s wish-list, which, as uncovered by Western Values Project, shaped Interior’s effort to roll-back the cooperative plans. An analysis of the oil and gas leases in sagebrush habitat highlights the top ten corporations that stand to benefit from the overhaul and over 20 percent of leases in sage-grouse habitat have been linked to Bernhardt. WVP previously filed suit for sage-grouse related documents that uncovered industry’s influence on the Interior Department during the sage-grouse review, including meetings and comments that were previously shielded from the public.

Interior’s FOIA delays have become commonplace after instituting a burdensome review process last year in which all Presidentially Appointed, Senate Confirmed, Non-Career Senior Executive and/or Schedule C employees would be notified of pending public records releases. The department also submitted a new rule during the historic government shutdown that would allow the department to deny requests that it deems ‘burdensome’ or ‘vague.’

The continued erosion of sage-grouse habitat will impact over 350 species that depend on the “big empty” of the sagebrush sea – habitat that drives over $1 billion in economic output each year from outdoor recreation alone.

This complaint was prepared with the assistance of Hunter Bohannan, Bobby DeMarco, Erin Hogan-Freemole, Shelby Krantz, and Cynthia Sanchez, who were students in the University of Colorado Law School’s Getches-Green Natural Resources and Environmental Law Clinic.

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