For Immediate Release: Tuesday, March 16, 2021
Contact: Peter Jenkins (202) 265-4189; Kirsten Stade email@example.com
BLM Moves to Fire Migratory Bird Whistleblower
Reports on Raptors Dying in Big Wyoming Oil and Gas Project Spiked
Washington, DC — A U.S. Bureau of Land Management environmental analyst is facing termination for persisting in raising concerns about the potential for devastating impacts on raptors and other wildlife from a massive Wyoming oil and gas project, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The case will be a litmus test for BLM’s new leadership.
The case revolves around a controversial BLM decision to approve a plan for 5,000 oil and gas wells, 500 miles of gas pipelines, 900 miles of water pipelines, new roads, and electrical lines in Converse County, Wyoming. BLM analysts had raised concerns the project will seriously degrade nesting sites of ferruginous hawks, kestrels, owls, and other raptors yet the agency removed key restrictions on drilling and other work during bird breeding and nesting periods.
Walter Loewen, an environmental analyst, repeatedly stressed to the BLM’s leadership the high potential mortality from the Converse County oil and gas project, in particular to the ferruginous hawk. After those disclosures, Mr. Loewen was removed from all further environmental work on that or any other projects and sidelined into “make work” tasks. The Wyoming State Office has now proposed removing him from federal service for alleged performance issues on his new tasks despite his many years of prior strong performance ratings.
“Inside Trump’s BLM, speaking truth to power was not tolerated,” stated PEER Senior Counsel Peter Jenkins, who is leading Loewen’s defense team, noting that Loewen had worked at several federal agencies before joining BLM six years ago. “The real reason Walter Loewen was targeted for removal is because he actually tried to do his job.”
Earlier this month, the Biden administration scrapped a Trump initiative to allow unintended killing of migratory birds by industry operations. Prior to that reversal, BLM waived some of the strongest protections for raptors in the Converse County oil project. The final Environmental Impact Statement, from which Mr. Loewen was removed, endorsed the elimination of limits on construction and drilling activity during periods when birds mate or fledge their chicks. BLM estimates that there are approximately 1,500 non-eagle raptor nests in the project area.
Another wrinkle in Mr. Loewen’s situation is that the official deciding his fate is Duane Spencer, the Associate BLM State Director, who signed off on the agency decisions allowing the excess bird deaths. PEER has formally asked that Spencer recuse himself from the matter because of his prior history, but he and the agency have rebuffed that request.
“Mr. Loewen will be judged by the very official whose harmful actions he questioned,” added Jenkins, pointing to a new PEER survey of BLM staff who reported, among other things, how environmental reviews had been gutted under orders to speed up approvals. “This case illustrates that the task of conducting environmental reviews in the final days of the Trump administration certainly qualified as a high-risk occupation.”