A federal administrative judge has rejected an appeal by a whistleblower who claims he was fired from his federal job after advocating for migrating birds at a huge Wyoming gas- and oilfield, the whistleblower’s attorney said Monday.
Samantha Black, who adjudicates for the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board, made the ruling in March after hearing the appeal by former U.S. Bureau of Land Management employee Walter Loewen in February, according to Peter Jenkins, an attorney who represented Loewen through the group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.
Loewen testified about how he raised worries about migrating and nesting raptors while reviewing the 5,000-well Converse County Oil and Gas Project. PEER said he was fired for doing his job. Loewen’s supervisor said the former BLM employee failed to perform a variety of duties, leaving her no option but to terminate him.
Why it Matters:
At issue are some 1,500 non-eagle raptor nests sites for ferruginous hawks, kestrels, owls and other birds. Development is supposed to be held at bay when birds mate and fledge their chicks, PEER stated.
Instead, BLM waived protection for 98 raptor nesting sites for a year, with more waivers possible. Critics panned BLM for its plan, including the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, which said the federal agency had chosen a development option “most impactful” to wildlife.
The appeal contended that Loewen was forced to kowtow to Trump-administration desires to advance oil and gas development regardless of some environmental impacts. “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,” PEER said as it took up Loewen’s case.
Former Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt in 2020 approved the development of the gas- and oilfield despite objections it would fragment wildlife habitat, doom greater-sage-grouse breeding leks and use more than twice the amount of water predicted. The approval covered some 1.5 million acres in Wyoming, an area larger than Delaware.
Much of Loewen’s worries in 2019 came over the fate of “non-eagle” raptors protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. He clashed with a supervisor over protections for those birds as well as when drilling and construction should be allowed near nests and other sensitive areas.
The BLM terminated Loewen in 2021 after its first effort to fire him failed. Black heard his appeal earlier this year.
Who said what:
When it rolled out its approval of the Converse County Oil and Gas Project, BLM quoted a variety of state and federal officials who lauded the development’s projected 8,000 jobs and $18 billion to $28 billion in federal revenues. Developers, represented by energy company EOG, said the plan provides “ample protection for wildlife, habitat and other resources.”
Loewen told judge Black about his worries. “I had concerns regarding the Migratory Bird Act, National Environmental Policy Act-analysis, concerns about excessive mortality of sensitive species protected by the MBA,” Loewen testified. “It just seemed those issues weren’t at that time being adequately addressed.”
But Loewen’s supervisor, Jennifer Fleuret McConchie, laid out how she believed Loewen’s work fell short. “He ended up not being helpful,” she testified.
Among other things, “he had failed to follow my instructions on several occasions,” she said at the hearing. “He was unable to understand his role. I proposed removal. There were no other options.”
PEER is studying the ruling as it decides whether to take further action, attorney Jenkins wrote in an email Monday.