BOISE, Idaho — U.S. officials are using the coronavirus pandemic to force a through long-delayed Idaho livestock grazing allotment decision in critical sage grouse habitat for a powerful agribusiness, an environmental group says.

Wildlands Defense is asking the Bureau of Land Management to delay its March 20 decision approving Idaho-based J.R. Simplot Co.’s permit on about 94 square miles (244 square kilometers) in southwestern Idaho for at least 10,500 cattle until the virus abates.

The director for the Idaho bureau, John Ruhs, has refused. It’s not clear when the agency will issue a final decision, which would start a 30-day appeals process.

Wildlands defense said the bureau’s appeal process requiring in-person trips to U.S. Postal Service offices to send or acknowledge receipt of certified mail by dozens of people puts communities at risk. The group said the bureau’s requirements also violate Gov. Brad Little’s March 25 stay-at-home order.

“In the midst of a pandemic, they issue a proposed grazing decision,” said Katie Fite, public lands director for WildLands Defense, noting the bureau had put the decision off for 20 years. “I’m deeply concerned about the timing of this decision. Clearly, Idaho BLM is not interested in the health of the public.”

The grazing allotment is in an area typically referred to as the Owyhees, which includes the Owyhee Mountains, canyons and rolling flats.

Bureau spokesman Ken Frederick, in an email to The Associated Press, said the bureau’s “ability to modify grazing appeal procedures, which require certified mail receipts to confirm that interested parties received notice of a grazing decision and signed hard copies of appeals, is limited.”

The agency hasn’t made public on its website the proposed decision.

A copy obtained by the AP shows the agency is proposing to renew the grazing permit for 10 years. The average number of cattle on the range has been about 3,700 since Simplot acquired the permit in 1995. The proposed permit for 10,500 is roughly the same as 1995, but numbers typically fluctuate below that based on the condition of the range.

Specifically, the number of livestock is measured in AUMs, which is defined as the amount of forage needed by an “animal unit” grazing for one month. An animal unit is based on one mature 1,000-pound (450-kilogram) cow and her suckling calf. A mature bull is defined as more than one animal unit because it consumes more food than a cow and calf, while a yearling steer is defined as less because it eats less.

J.R. Simplot Company’s Land and Livestock division manages the allotment that is used to grow beef cattle and yearling cattle, said spokesman Josh Jordan in an email. He said the company didn’t have a comment about the 20-year delay in renewing the permit, but was pleased its stewardship had resulted in favorable conditions since it acquired the allotment and can now move forward with the permit renewal.

“We will continue to work with the BLM on an annual basis to ensure the appropriate management based on resource conditions,” Jordan said.

Fite said the bureau isn’t considering the significance of the habitat for sage grouse.

“It’s the heart of the heart of the most important sage grouse habitat in the Owyhees,” said Fite.

Federal agencies have identified the allotment as containing some of Idaho’s most important sage grouse habitat, and bureau’s proposed decision describes ideal sage grouse habitat in the grazing allotment: “The majority of the use area is comprised of low sagebrush/bunchgrass communities with scattered stands of big sagebrush/bunchgrass communities, as well as streams and upland springs.”

The bureau notes that about 20 square miles (52 square kilometers) of the Owyhee River Wilderness Areas overlap the grazing allotment.

Sage grouse are chicken-sized birds with an elaborate courtship ritual. Between 200,000 and 500,000 sage grouse remain in 11 Western states, down from a peak population of about 16 million. Experts generally attribute the decline to road construction, development and oil and gas leasing.