The San Miguel Board of County Commissioners and three environmental organizations filed a lawsuit on Oct. 10 against the federal Bureau of Land Management.
The lawsuit seeks to “invalidate” the leasing of nine parcels of land in San Miguel County from a March 2017 Colorado Lease Sale by the Tres Rios Field Office. According to a news release, the land was put up for sale “without properly considering the environmental impacts of drilling” in those areas.
The parcels are located in the western end of the county, in areas that were identified as important to the protection of the Gunnison sage-grouse “and the leks (mating grounds) used for the bird’s unique courtship display,” a news release states.
San Miguel County Commissioner Hilary Cooper said some of the parcels up for lease also are being considered for designation as Areas of Critical Environmental Concern through an amendment process.
In a previous interview with the Daily Planet, Lynn Padgett, the director of government affairs and natural resources for the county, said it didn’t make sense for the BLM to lease land that was currently being considered for such protections.
“Leasing these parcels now while there is still an ongoing amendment process for the (Gunnison) sage-grouse is premature,” she said.
The other leased parcels are not being considered for this designation but are “within a few miles of this critical habitat and our concern there is that the BLM did not go through the proper process to evaluate these in terms of all the potential environmental impacts before they leased,” Cooper said.
The Gunnison sage-grouse was listed as threatened under The Endangered Species Act in 2014. There are believed to be less than 5,000 of these birds residing in southwestern Colorado, southeastern Utah, and parts of New Mexico and Arizona, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The county has been “actively engaged in protecting the Gunnison sage-grouse for years,” Cooper said, having signed a memorandum of understanding with 11 other counties and giving its commitment to coordinate efforts to protect the bird and its habitat.
She added that the State of Colorado, local jurisdictions and land managers have been working together to keep the bird off the Endangered Species List. “In order to do that there were a lot of protections put in place and we feel that the BLM Tres Rios Field Office is disregarding that substantial statewide effort that has occurred and we feel they are in violation of federal law.”
Prior to the March lease sale, Cooper said the county had voiced its concerns through several rounds of scoping comments and a formal protest of the sale in December 2016.
“We hadn’t gotten any response so we had no choice but to litigate,” she said.
The lawsuit not only takes issue with the leasing of parcels within Gunnison sage-grouse habitat, but also with the alleged failure of the office to follow proper procedures when designating land for lease sales.
According to the case document, the plaintiffs (the county and three environmental groups) state that the BLM did not “consider or account for new scientific information, changed conditions, and other relevant factors” when taking into account the environmental impact of oil and gas activity in the area.
“These failures render the March 2017 leasing decision arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, not in accordance with law, and without observance of procedure required by law,” the lawsuit states.
In addition to the San Miguel County Commissioners, Rocky Mountain Wild, the San Juan Citizens Alliance and Conservation Colorado are also part of the lawsuit.
Megan Mueller, senior conservation biologist for Rocky Mountain Wild — a Denver-based nonprofit that protects and restores wildlife — said leasing the land will further displace and endanger the Gunnison sage-grouse.
“Half of the remaining habitat for Gunnison sage-grouse is on public land managed by BLM, and their continued failure to do their share to protect critical habitat undermines the local collaborative effort to conserve this unique Colorado bird,” she said in a news release.
When reached via email, BLM spokeswoman Shannon Borders said the office was unable to comment on pending litigation.