Cattle grazing allowed to continue, but criticized for endangered species impacts, by federal court in Idaho
Western Watersheds Project v. Dyer, Nos. CV-04-181-S-BLW, CV-02-521-S-BLW, 2009 WL 484438 (D.Idaho, Feb. 26, 2009) (B. Lynn Winmill, Chief Judge)
SUMMARY: Western Watersheds Project, an environmental group, brought this lawsuit to ban livestock grazing in certain areas of the Jarbidge Field Office, 1.4 million acres of public land managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Western Watersheds Project (WWP) alleges that continued grazing destroys what little habitat remains for imperiled species like the sage grouse, pygmy rabbit, and slickspot peppergrass.
Photo of sage grouse from Idaho Department of Fish & Game.
All three species are being considered for listing under the Endangered Species Act, and have been deemed "sensitive species" by the BLM. They rely on sage brush habitat that has been in steep decline for years across the west and subject to even more massive losses in the Jarbidge Field Office as a result of the 2007 Murphy Complex Fire… The BLM has authorized grazing to continue in the unburned areas. Concerned by the rapidly deteriorating habitat for imperiled species, WWP has identified specific areas within the JFO where key habitat remains, and seeks to ban all grazing in those areas. WWP argues that the BLM violated federal environmental laws by failing to adequately take into account the interests of imperiled species when it decided to authorize grazing in key remaining habitat, repair fences, and adopt the criteria for reopening burned areas to grazing. The BLM, and the ranchers who hold grazing permits, deny these charges and assert that they are complying with the law.
RULING: The Court held ten days of evidentiary hearings, listening to testimony and examining thousands of pages of documents. In these Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law, the Court finds (1) that three sensitive species in the JFO--the sage grouse, pygmy rabbit, and slickspot peppergrass--are in serious decline; (2) that livestock grazing is an important factor in that decline; (3) that the current management plan (known as a Resource Management Plan or RMP) governing the JFO is currently being revised by the BLM through the preparation of a comprehensive Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) designed to describe the ecological status of the JFO and identify the environmental impacts of activities, including grazing; (4) that the BLM has committed to preparing new grazing permits across the JFO when the new RMP is completed; (5) that in its 2008 grazing authorizations, the BLM misinterpreted the existing RMP, especially by viewing the RMP's requirements for protection of sensitive species as mere suggestions; (6) that the existing RMP is more protective of sensitive species than it has previously been interpreted by the BLM; (7) that the BLM is directed to correct its interpretation as it considers authorizing grazing for the 2009 grazing season and beyond; (8) that a ban on grazing is not required by law at this point as the Court is confident in the BLM's ability to modify the grazing to be authorized in the 2009 grazing season to accord with the Court's interpretation of the existing RMP; (9) that environmental studies in addition to the ongoing EIS are not required by law at this time; and (10) that the BLM's fencing and closure criteria decisions were consistent with legal requirements.
KEITHINKING: The decision was a partial defeat for the environmentalists, and denied many counts of Plaintiff's request for an actual injunction of grazing activities. In a press release, Western Watersheds Project still snatched victory from the defeat, emphasizing a portion of the ruling that stated: "73. The 2008 grazing authorizations show that the BLM allowed grazing as usual in the unburned areas with very little attempt to maintain and enhance these diminishing key sage habitat areas... 74. Moreover, the 2008 grazing authorizations show that the BLM continued to allow substantial grazing in key sage grouse habitat during critical seasons of mating, nesting, and brood-rearing... 75. Given the protections for sensitive species set forth in the 1987 RMP, as discussed above, the BLM must apply a more rigorous standard to grazing authorizations in the interim years before the new RMP is completed..." Still, in the end, the Court declined to issue an injunction on grazing, instead issuing a "narrative" injunction concluding that "BLM is enjoined from interpreting the 1987 Resource Management Plan in any manner other than imposing requirements (1) to maintain or enhance existing and potential populations of the sensitive species within the planning area, and (2) to ensure that wildlife goals and watershed needs will be satisfied prior to allowing increases in livestock use."
SEE ALSO: news coverage by new west.net, KMVT, Jarbidge Sage Grouse Local Working Group Plan,