A day after Montana Gov. Steve Bullock sued to remove acting Bureau of Land Management Director William Perry Pendley from his post, public lands advocates and Montana’s Democratic senator are calling for hearings on Pendley’s nomination to lead a federal agency responsible for managing millions of acres of public lands, saying he is unfit for the position. 

Democratic Montana U.S. Sen. Jon Tester on Tuesday joined Sen. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., a former Montana tribal leader and other public land advocates to call for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to quickly hold confirmation hearings for Pendley so he has to answer questions about what they say are beliefs hostile to public lands and in favor of selling western public lands owned by the federal government.  

“I think the key is to get his record out there so everybody can see it. Not everybody is that familiar with it,” Tester said Tuesday. “His extremism is out of touch with the American people who value their public lands and want to see them preserved for our kids and our grandkids. He has no business running the Bureau of Land Management.”

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt named Pendley to the BLM post one year ago and has continued to reappoint him to serve in the acting role. President Donald Trump formally nominated Pendley for the job last month. 

Acting BLM Director William Perry Pendley.

Bullock, in his lawsuit, said Monday he hopes to have Pendley barred from leading the bureau while his nomination is pending, claiming that federal law under the Federal Vacancies Reform Act prohibits acting directors from serving while their nomination is pending.

“I’m taking this action today not just to block William Perry Pendley’s further illegitimate oversight of the Bureau, but also to ensure that this unconstitutional abuse of executive powers does not become commonplace under any administration in the future,” Bullock said in a Monday news release. “Americans and Montanans deserve a Bureau of Land Management director who values the public’s role in managing our public lands. During Pendley’s unlawful tenure, the BLM has interfered with Montana’s collaborative efforts and public access priorities. This decision-making by unconfirmed federal officials stands to create long-lasting and irreversible injury to our state’s lands, economy, and wildlife.”

Montana’s Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, who is running against Bullock to keep his seat, sits on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which would review Pendley’s nomination. Daines’ office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. 

BLM spokesman Derrick Henry said Pendley looks forward to a Senate confirmation hearing, noting that the agency has acquired more than 25,000 acres and expanded recreational access on BLM land under Pendley’s leadership. Pendley has “vigorously championed BLM’s diverse portfolio of land uses, whether recreational, commercial or conservation,” Henry said. 

“Mr. Pendley brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to the Department and is committed to carrying out the Administration’s priorities and achieving the BLM’s multiple-use mission for the betterment of the American people,” Henry said. 

Public lands account for about 30% of Montana’s 94.1 million acre land base. The Bureau of Land Management manages more than 8 million of those acres, according to the Montana Wilderness Association. Montana’s public lands help support more than 70,000 jobs and $7 billion in “economic opportunity” yearly in the state, Tester said. 

Bullock, Tester and other public lands advocates said that Pendley’s record is clear. Pendley as an attorney helped defend an energy developer’s attempt to drill for oil in the Badger-Two Medicine region, which the Blackfeet Tribe considers important. A federal court last month ruled against the developer. They also pointed to a 2016 article written by Pendley calling for the federal government to sell its public land in the West. 

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Bullock and those at Tuesday’s meeting also said the agency under Pendley has abandoned collaboration with western states. For example, they said, the agency quit a bipartisan agreement with western governors that prioritized oil and gas leasing outside of sage grouse habitat to protect the species. They also alleged that Pendley has encouraged “armed insurgents” during standoffs against BLM employees, like one in 2014 between federal officials and Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy.

Official confirmation hearings, they said, would force Pendley to publicly answer tough questions about his agenda and stances on public lands. 

“The idea that Mr. Pendley was put in this position in the first place is really a slap in the face to all public landowners. The fox has really been given the keys to the henhouse,” said Land Tawney, president and CEO of the Montana-based Backcountry Hunters & Anglers. “And our membership has been calling for a formal nomination ever since he was put in this acting position. We don’t think he’ll be able to pass the scrutiny of the Senate, and we look forward to that process.”


This story was updated July 21, 2020, to include post-publication comment from a BLM spokesperson.

Chris Aadland covers tribal affairs in Montana as a Report for America corps member based in Billings. Before moving to Montana he covered the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming for the Casper Star-Tribune, and has also reported for the Wisconsin State Journal. Contact Chris at caadland@montanafreepress.org and follow @cjaadland on Twitter.