Trump’s “Darling” Of The Sagebrush Rebellion Has Striking Conflicts Of Interest

Interior Appointee Karen Budd-Falen’s Business Interests In Key Sage-Grouse Habitat Raise Serious Questions 

A new analysis by Western Values Project reveals that Karen Budd-Falen — Interior’s Deputy Solicitor for Parks and Wildlife and “darling of the Sagebrush Rebellion” — has serious conflicts of interest concerning her ownership stake in a ranching empire spanning across hundreds of thousands of acres overlapping prime sage-grouse habitat. The analysis follows a Mother Jones story that exposed Budd-Falen’s work to undermine the Endangered Species Act and redefine habitat while owning and operating a business in key sage-grouse habitat.  

Karen Budd-Falen, the original darling of the anti-public lands Sagebrush Rebellion movement, has been working to undermine public land and wildlife protections for almost her entire career. Now that she is a top-level Trump appointee, Budd-Falen’s clear conflicts raise serious ethical questions about her involvement in decisions, like rolling back the Endangered Species Act,” said Jayson O’Neill, Director of Western Values Project. “It’s hard to tell if Budd-Falen’s motivation is for her own personal gain or the anti-public land special interests she used to represent. Either way, America’s public lands, wildlife, and outdoor economy continue to lose with conflicted political hires like Budd-Falen pushing their corrupt agenda.” 

Budd-Falen’s exclusively obtained financial disclosure form and findings released by Western Values Project (WVP) — an Accountable.US project based in Montana, defending America’s public lands — raises questions about Budd-Falen’s ability to do her job amid her serious conflicts of interest. Concerns over Budd-Falen’s conflicts previously derailed her bid to become the director of the Bureau of Land Management. 

Budd-Falen was one of the key architects of the Trump administration’s rollbacks to the ESA and is working on defining ‘habitat’ under the law, according to reporting by E&E News. At a Western Caucus Foundation policy roundtable, Budd-Falen told those in attendance to be ready for more proposed ESA reforms and that “our next round of regulations is going to deal with, No. 1, what is the definition of habitat.” Both issues that Budd-Falen has and is working on have major implications for the imperiled sage grouse and her sprawling ranching empire.  

Ironically, several celebrities who also own sprawling ranchettes in Wyoming have benefited from the Trump administration’s decision to renege on the largest collective habitat management agreement in history. The Trump administration has also put up some 4.3 million acres of public land in sage-grouse habitat for lease nationally and sold some 2 million acres in sage-grouse habitat to oil and gas corporations in Wyoming since 2017. 

Budd-Falen’s law office also took a taxpayer-backed Payroll Protection Program forgivable-loan. 

Karen Budd-Falen Has An Ownership Stake In A Ranching Empire Spanning Hundreds Of Thousands Of Acres Of Public Land  — Including Prime Sage-Grouse Habitat 

While Karen Budd-Falen was meeting with oil lobbyists who had vested interests in rewriting sage-grouse habitat management plans, she also has her own ownership stake in thousands of acres of proposed Greater Sage Grouse General Habitat Management Areas — lands where special management would be applied to sustain and protect sage grouse populations and habitat. Budd-Falen also owns over 100,000 acres that are entirely within a BLM sagebrush focal area — land that holds high densities of sage grouse. The Trump administration’s attempts to roll back the 2015 sage-grouse habitat management plans completely eliminated sagebrush focal areas  

Budd-Falen’s calendars outline meetings with representatives of the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA) and the Western Energy Alliance (WEA). The IPAA was “integrally involved” in rewriting sage grouse management plans to ensure conservation efforts were rolled back and extractive interests were prioritized. WEA, for their part, offered Interior a “sage grouse wish list” that sought to dissemble sage grouse protections while promoting oil and gas development goals. Budd-Falen appears to have worked closely with these groups to secure their demands, while the same work simultaneously benefited her personally-owned land.  

Budd-Falen Owned Stock in a Number of Companies that Interior Regulates  

Karen Budd-Falen’s public financial disclosure form revealed that she owned stock in numerous oil and gas companies including Anadarko Petroleum Corporation, EOG Resources Inc., Whiting Petroleum Corporation, and Alerian MLP Index. Budd-Falen also owned stock in Xcel Energy, who had substantial business pending with Interior.  

Within six months of joining Interior, Budd-Falen divested some of her oil and gas company stocks including Alerian MLP ETF, Anadarko, EOG, and Whiting Petroleum. She has not divested her stock in Xcel Energy — which continues to have specific matters pending before Interior.  

Karen Budd-Falen and the Endangered Species Act  

Karen Budd-Falen said she would repeal the Endangered Species Act “in a heartbeat,” during a 2016 speech. She said the original intent of the ESA had not been accomplished. These comments illuminated Budd-Falen’s true mission within Interior and set the stage for her corrupted actions that would follow. 

Budd-Falen met multiple times with lobbyists from groups that were seeking to rewrite the ESA. Her calendars show several meetings with lobbyists hired through Van Ness Feldman, a group lobbying on behalf of the National Endangered Species Act Reform Coalition (NESARC). NESARC has been a frequent ESA critic, advocating for changing and overhauling the act. 

Budd-Falen also met with a lobbyist from Occidental Petroleum to discuss their concerns with the ESA. Occidental Petroleum has said the ESA was being used to “control” how the landscape was being used.  The group was worried that the ESA could “slow oil and gas activities across Texas — especially the water-intensive processes of drilling and fracking.” Budd-Falen has continued to work to appease these oil and gas interests in her pursuit to roll back the Endangered Species Act.

View a full analysis of Karen Budd-Falen’s financial disclosure form and maps of her sprawling ranching empire overlaid with sage-grouse habitat here. 

Join the effort to strengthen the American West.