Bloomberg Law
Sept. 26, 2020, 12:53 AMUpdated: Sept. 26, 2020, 2:20 AM

Land Bureau’s Top Official Serving Unlawfully, Court Rules (1)

Ellen M. Gilmer
Ellen M. Gilmer
Bobby Magill
Bobby Magill

William Perry Pendley has been serving unlawfully atop the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management and can no longer act as the agency’s de facto leader, a federal court ruled Friday.

The U.S. District Court for the District of Montana sided with Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D), finding that Interior Secretary David Bernhardt’s indefinite delegation of director duties to Pendley violated the Federal Vacancies Reform Act.

“Pendley has served and continues to serve unlawfully as the Acting BLM Director,” Chief Judge Brian Morris wrote. “His ascent to Acting BLM Director did not follow any of the permissible paths set forth by the U.S. Constitution or the FVRA.”

The Interior Department plans to “immediately” appeal the decision, spokesman Conner D. Swanson said.

“This is an outrageous decision that is well outside the bounds of the law,” he said in an email. “It betrays long-standing practice of the Department going back several administrations.”

Duties Delegated

Bernhardt in July 2019 delegated the duties of land bureau director to Pendley, the bureau’s deputy director whose Senate nomination for bureau director was withdrawn by the White House on Aug. 15 after weeks of public outcry.

The decision is a victory for Bullock and other critics of Pendley, who previously represented oil and gas companies in legal matters and advocated for selling off public lands.

“For years, the Trump administration has abused the Vacancies Reform Act by using unconfirmed acting directors to implement its drill-everywhere agenda,” Center for Western Priorities executive director Jennifer Rokala said in a statement. “This ruling is a stark repudiation of the administration’s attempt to manage our parks and public lands with unconfirmed political appointees.”

Morris ordered both sides to file briefs explaining whether certain actions Pendley took in the role should be set aside.

Before joining the land bureau, Pendley, whose Twitter handle is “@sagebrush-rebel,” was known for his opposition to federal ownership of public land and national monuments.

He served as president of the Colorado-based Mountain States Legal Foundation for nearly 30 years until 2018. The foundation has a record of suing the federal government on behalf of the oil, gas, livestock, and timber industries for access to public lands.

The case is Bullock v. Bureau of Land Management, D. Mont., No. 4:20-cv-00062, 9/25/20.

(Adds department comment in paragraphs 4-5.)

To contact the reporters on this story: Ellen M. Gilmer in Washington at; Bobby Magill at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Anna Yukhananov at; Tom P. Taylor at