Recently, the Utah Bureau of Land Management cancelled an oil and gas lease sale, citing the need to further study the impact of drilling on wildlife habitat. Conservationists think the cancellation – the first in over 25 years – sets a national precedent for protecting wildlife habitat from energy leasing. But the BLM disagrees and public-lands experts say that isn’t necessarily the case.

The BLM says many factors, including a recommendation by the Utah Department of Wildlife to increase the study of wildlife habitat, led to the cancellation of the 141,717-acre Nov. 13 sale. But an agency document cites an Interior Department judicial board ruling as a reason for deferring a majority of the 86 proposed sale parcels. In November 2006, the Interior Board of Land Appeals, which rules on Bureau of Land Management policy, ruled on a lease sale appeal filed in Utah by the Center for Native Ecosystems. The board said that the appropriate time to consider potential impacts of drilling is when public land is first proposed for leasing, before sales are made.

This is the first time an IBLA ruling has had a hand in parcels being deferred from leasing, and conservationists were elated. “We view this cancellation as the BLM in Utah finally seeing the light,” says Josh Pollock, Center for Native Ecosystems conservation director. “But where the heck are the rest of the BLM’s offices on this ruling? There are still violations all around the West.” He and other environmentalists believe this ruling applies across the entire Bureau of Land Management, not just to the Utah office.

The big question is whether they’re right. “The short answer is that all agency offices have to follow IBLA rulings,” says John Leshy, former solicitor general of the Interior under Clinton. “But the rulings may be subject to interpretation by each state agency’s attorneys.” That gray area is responsible for the rift between conservationists’ opinion and that of the state offices. “There is a degree to which the state agency lawyers can feel free to disagree with IBLA rulings and advise their office according to their own interpretations,” says Robert Keiter, Wallace Stegner professor of law at the University of Utah. If the state offices can’t agree on how to interpret a board ruling, they can request clarification from the Office of Hearing and Appeals or the secretary of Interior.

But that’s not the case here. Other state BLM offices, including Colorado and Wyoming, agree with the Utah office’s claim that the ruling is specific only to Utah. That means that it will have no overarching implication for Bureau of Land Management lease sale procedures. “We do not view the IBLA decision as a big procedural change,” says Terry Catlin, energy team leader for the Utah BLM.

For conservationists concerned about the sale of leases in critical wildlife habitat, the state offices’ agreement on interpretation is a setback, albeit a minor one. “We’ve been raising this exact issue for years. Regardless of legal interpretations, we believe the ruling sends a strong message to the BLM,” says Pollock. “We will continue to examine every lease sale and to protest every parcel of public land that we believe is endangering critical wildlife habitat or natural resources.”