U.S. gets $87 million for oil and gas leases in sage grouse habitat

U.S. Bureau of Land Management photo shows a sage grouse in this undated photo. REUTERS/Bob Wick/BLM/Handout

(Reuters) - The U.S. government received bids for about 70 percent of the land it offered at a large oil and gas lease sale in Wyoming last week, held over the protests of conservationists who argued the area was critical habitat for wildlife, including a threatened bird.

High bids added up to over $87 million, according to oil and gas marketplace EnergyNet, which conducted the online sale. The sale took place over five days from Feb. 25 through March 1.

A spokeswoman for the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) said the agency was in the process of preparing a statement on the sale.

The lease sale, covering 757,607.14 acres, was one of the largest conducted on land under the administration of President Donald Trump. It had originally been set for late last year, but a federal judge’s order in September required BLM to provide additional public comment and a 30-day protest period for the 565 land parcels, all which are in sage grouse habitat.

Sage grouse, a threatened Western ground-dwelling bird, are considered by conservationists to be a key indicator for America’s dwindling sagebrush ecosystem.

The Trump administration has proposed easing Obama-era protections for the fowl, part of its “energy dominance” agenda to loosen environmental regulations and open up more federal land and waters to energy exploration, but has yet to do so.

The BLM received four protests to the sale from conservation groups and a wilderness school. Green groups argued the BLM was not prioritizing leasing outside of sage grouse habitats as required by current rules, and said officials had not evaluated the impacts to mule deer, since dozens of parcels overlap with big game migration corridors and winter range.

The auction received bids for 437 parcels covering 526,697 acres, EnergyNet said.

Reporting by Nichola Groom; Editing by Bill Berkrot