Federal regulators did not adequately address whether a proposed wind-turbine project in southeastern Oregon would adversely impact the area’s greater sage grouse population, the Ninth Circuit ruled Thursday.
After the Bureau of Land Management approved the proposed construction of the Echanis Wind Energy Project on the state’s Steens Mountain in Harney County, the environmental group Oregon Natural Desert Association sued the government in Federal Court under the National Environmental Policy Act.
The BLM’s approval of the project failed to account for the turbines’ effects on the mountain’s population of sage grouse, a bird listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act, the environmentalists claimed.
Steens Mountain is home to many pockets of sagebrush – essential habitat for the sage grouse, especially during the winter – and it lies near the center of “one of the last remaining strongholds of continuous sagebrush habitat essential for the long-term persistence” of the bird, according to the Circuit’s 25-page opinion.
A federal judge found for the government, but after a March hearing the Circuit’s three-judge panel reversed the decision.
“Today’s decision is an important precedent reminding land managers that the survival of imperiled species like the sage grouse depends on well-informed and scientifically defensible review so that we get the right projects in the right places without permanently impairing the human environment,” attorney Mac Lacy, who represented the environmentalists, said in an email.
Writing for the three-judge panel, Circuit Judge Marsha Berzon said that the BLM conducted no surveys to determine whether sage grouse were present at the project’s proposed site during the winter months and relied on data from surveys conducted at lower elevations.
“A fundamental flaw infects this reasoning,” Berzon said.
The inaccurate data rendered the BLM’s assumption that no sage grouse were present at the site during the winter months “arbitrary and capricious,” she said.
“The inaccurate information and unsupported assumption materially impeded informed decision-making and public participation,” Berzon said.
“Without appropriate data regarding sage grouse use of the Echanis site during the winter, whether direct or via a supportable extrapolation, it was not possible to begin to assess whether sage grouse would be impacted with regard to access to viable sagebrush habitat in the winter months.”
The Justice Department, which defended the BLM, did not immediately respond to an email requesting comment on Thursday morning.
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