From the pages of
Sublette Examiner
Volume 5, Number 20 - August 11, 2005
brought to you online by Pinedale Online

WWP wins on cattle removal

by Cat Urbigkit

Idaho-based Western Watersheds Project, an anti-grazing organization with an organizer working in Sublette County, recently won a major court victory in Idaho. Federal Court Judge B. Lynn Winmill ordered the immediate removal of cattle from more than 800,000 acres of public land grazing allotments in the Jarbridge Field Office of the Bureau of Land Management.

“This remarkable court victory for WWP affects 28 BLM grazing allotments located southwest of Twin Falls, Idaho to the Nevada border,” WWP reported. “The majority of the cattle to be removed belong to the largest public land rancher in the United States, 96-year old billionaire J.R. Simplot.”

The case is significant not only for the hardship on the local ranches affected, but also because it sheds light on a judge who will consider a national case brought forth by the same organization, this time challenging the BLM’s new grazing regulations, which were welcomed by the ranching community. WWP has had a series of successful lawsuits in Winmill’s court.

In the recent Idaho ruling, Winmill concluded that the BLM must carry out a full environmental impact statement on the entire landscape of the 28 allotments, and that the irreparable harm that would occur to sage grouse if grazing continued warranted an immediate injunction ending all livestock use on all the allotments.

The judge’s decision provided background on the matter, noting that the BLM has divided the public lands it manages into administrative segments known as resource areas. The Jarbridge Resource Area comprises about 1.7-million acres of land in southern Idaho and is managed in accordance with the Jarbridge Area Resource Management Plan, completed in 1987.

The BLM recently renewed 10-year grazing permits for 28 of the grazing allotments in the area, and it was that action that WWP successfully challenged.

When BLM issued its resource management plan in 1987, that plan “described a bleak landscape,” according to Judge Winmill. “Only 16 percent of the rangeland was in fair or better condition, while 48 percent was in poor condition.”

Winmill noted, “Recognizing that grazing was part of the problem, the [BLM] stated that ‘wildlife goals and watershed needs will be satisfied prior to allowing increases in livestock use.’ ”

At that time, the BLM stated that increased grazing “would not be authorized unless monitoring studies indicate that the basic soil, vegetation and wildlife resources are being protected and additional forage is available.”

Winmill noted, consistent with this, the RMP directed that “priority for habitat management will be given to habitat for listed and candidate threatened, endangered and sensitive species.”

“One of the sensitive species designated by the BLM in the JRA is the sage grouse,” Winmill stated. Although grouse were originally spread over most of the area, “more recently, however, the BLM has observed that their numbers have declined dramatically.”

“Over the last 20 to 50 years there has been a subsequent overall population reduction,” Winmill noted. “The causes of this decline include overgrazing of sagebrush habitats, along with wildfires, habitat fragmentation, drought, invasion of exotic plants and conversion of sagebrush habitat to agriculture.”

Winmill continued: “The alarming decline of the sage grouse is occurring at the same time that the BLM is documenting problems with the JRA rangeland. Since 1999, the BLM has determined that all 28 of the grazing allotments at issue here fail to meet the ecological standards of the fundamentals of rangeland health. These regulations set minimum criteria for the condition of environmental resources, requiring, for example, that watersheds and riparian areas be in proper functioning condition, that water quality meets legal standards and that adequate habitat is being maintained for wildlife.”

Winmill stated, “Despite the deterioration” on some of the allotments, the BLM approved increased grazing on some allotments, while maintaining the past level of grazing on others. The BLM assessed the environmental impacts of grazing in environmental assessments, not EISs.

Winmill noted that the National Environmental Policy Act requires that an EIS must be prepared for every “major federal action significantly affecting the quality of the human environment.” If an agency decides not to prepare an EIS, it must supply a “convincing statement of reasons” to explain why a project’s impacts are insignificant.

To prevail on a claim that an agency violated its statutory duty to prepare an EIS, a “plaintiff need not show that significant effects will in fact occur.” It is enough for the plaintiff to raise “substantial questions whether a project may have a significant effect” on the environment, Winmill said.

Winmill said that the BLM’s resource management plan for the Jarbridge area “clearly places wildlife interests ahead of grazing increases.” He cited the portion of the BLM plan that stated, “Wildlife goals and watershed needs will be satisfied prior to allowing increases in livestock use.”

To drive home this point, the BLM’s plan also stated that increased grazing “would not be authorized unless monitoring studies indicate that the basic soil, vegetation and wildlife resources are being protected and additional forage is available.”

“The BLM argues that these provisions merely list discretionary guidelines rather than mandatory requirements,” Winmill stated. “The court disagrees. The plain language of the provisions speaks in terms of requirements, not suggestions.”

Winmill concluded: “There is no doubt that the sage grouse, a sensitive species, is in rapid decline, and that FRH violations exist on all the allotments. Under these circumstances, the [BLM plan] requires the BLM to ensure that wildlife protection takes priority over increases in grazing levels.”

“If environmental injury is sufficiently likely, the balance of harms will usually favor the issuance of an injunction to protect the environment,” Winmill noted, adding, “Here, serious environmental concerns are arrayed against substantial commercial interests.”

Winmill declared that that the BLM had violated both NEPA and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act.

“These violations occur simultaneously with the decline in the population of a sensitive species,” Winmill stated. “These circumstances require the immediate issuance of an injunction. The court will therefore enjoin all grazing on the 28 allotments at issue until a single EIS is completed and a record of decision or final grazing decision is rendered thereon.”

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