This week the BLM announced its plans to hold public hearings in November to allow for public comment regarding the agency’s decision to reopen 98 federal land use plans that were put in place to protect the greater sage grouse. Meanwhile, a watchdog group filed a federal lawsuit against the Interior Department, claiming the agency has not property responded to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request seeking records regarding the federal grouse plans.

Finalized in September 2015, the land use plans incorporate grouse protection measures covering almost 70 million acres in 10 Western states. These Obama-era plans were originally strong enough to convince the Fish and Wildlife Service not to list the bird for protection under the Endangered Species Act. However, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke established a review team regarding these plans, which recommended significant changes. Because of the potential modifications, BLM has announced it will hold public hearings in Idaho, California, Oregon, and Colorado, while also accepting written public comment via e-mail. The public hearings have been scheduled for November 2 (Twin Falls, Idaho), November 3 (Alturas, California), November 6 (Idaho Falls, Idaho), November 7 (Marsing, Idaho; Burns, Oregon), and November 9 (Craig, Colorado).

While the BLM prepares for the public hearings, Western Values Project filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia hoping to uncover e-mails between the oil and gas industry and the Interior Department regarding the sage grouse plans. A Montana-based environmental watchdog group, Western Values Project is concerned that coordination between BLM and energy industry executives resulted in the proposed changes to the sage grouse management plans. The group initially filed a FOIA request in August but filed this suit just two months later.

Western Values Project is particularly seeking correspondence between agency officials and Denver-based Western Energy Alliance. The group believes that Zinke’s review team’s changes closely mirror recommendations Western Energy alliance sent the team in July. Wester Value Project’s executive director stated “it’s been very clear that Secretary Zinke has been taking orders from special interests and lobbyists since being confirmed to his post, and his sage-grouse mandates are nothing short of the oil and gas industry’s wish list.” On the other hand, Western Energy Alliance president noted there was nothing in the letter that the Alliance had not already discussed publicly and the letter was a simple summary provided after the review team was publicly announced.