Recent actions taken by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to protect species on BLM-managed lands, before those species have been listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), raise questions about the evolution of BLM’s role in species protection and the impact this evolved role may have on minerals leasing and development on BLM-managed lands.
BLM is charged, under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, with developing Land Use Plans that make its public land and resources available under the principle of multiple-use, but at the same time, conserving special status species and their habitats. The agency’s actions with respect to two species, the Greater Sage-Grouse and the Dunes Sagebrush Lizard, are indicative of BLM’s trajectory in how it intends to balance its roles as species-protector and minerals-manager on public lands.
A December 27, BLM-issued internal Instruction Memorandum (IM) provides interim management policies and procedures to protect the Greater Sage-Grouse on BLM-managed lands in the Western United States with the expressed goal of potentially avoiding an ESA listing. The Greater-Sage Grouse is currently not protected under the ESA, its listing having been designated as “warranted but precluded” by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) in March 2010. The “warranted but precluded” listing decision concluded that existing regulatory mechanisms in the BLM’s Land Use Plans were inadequate to protect the species, which is found in up to 47 million acres of BLM-managed land.
The December IM makes it clear the new guidelines apply to both proposed and existing leases. The IM does recognize holders of existing mineral leases do have valid rights entitling them to certain development activities, but the guidance also indicates BLM will attempt to provide maximum protection to the Sage-Grouse within the bounds of those leases. For example, for fluid mineral leases, the IM states BLM may issue written orders requiring “reasonably protective measures consistent with the lease terms.” Further, when an existing leaseholder requires a new permit for minerals development, BLM plans to impose “reasonable” conditions in the permits that are likely to be more protective than the stipulations and restrictions currently identified in approved Land Use Plans.
BLM expressed a similar stance in the development of resource management plans in New Mexico to address the Dunes Sagebrush Lizard. In that instance, BLM noted "holders of existing oil and gas leases have valid rights for development of their leases" but asserted in responses to public comment that BLM "can withhold approval of prospective well locations on existing leases" or address candidate species through existing lease stipulations.
With FWS experiencing increasing backlogs in addressing ESA listing petitions, it seems likely there will be many more species that, like the Greater Sage-Grouse and the Dunes Sagebrush Lizard, are found to need habitat protection but cannot be allotted resources by FWS to do so. If BLM continues to step in and afford protections on the level it has in the case of these two species, effects on minerals leasing in BLM-managed lands could be far reaching. Minerals leaseholders on BLM lands should keep an eye on how far BLM ultimately stretches the bounds of existing mineral leases to protect the Greater Sage Grouse and Dunes Sagebrush Lizard, because BLM’s approach to these species may be indicative of a trend that will apply to many more species in the future.