Ranchers lose grazing suit in Idaho
— Justice to determine if appeal needed.
— Approximately 800,000 acres impacted.
A federal court judge in Idaho recently ruled that livestock grazing on approximately 800,000 acres of federally-managed land in the state must be stopped later this month in order to preserve and improve wildlife habitat.
Ranching organizations said the judge’s findings directly contradict a ruling earlier this year that said challenges to federal grazing rights must include factual basis, not just theoretical hypothesis. The decision also was said to violate a congressional order exempting the federal land in question from federally-mandated environmental reviews.
U.S. District Court Judge Lynn Winmill said that an increase of livestock grazing in the Jarbridge Resource Area had put native sage grouse populations in danger because tall grass habitat was being grazed and destroyed. In addition, he said the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) had violated federal rules by not conducting an environmental impact statement, required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), when making the decision to increase grazing in the area.
However, officials with the Idaho Cattle Association (ICA) and Stewards of the Range said that Winmill erred in his ruling by using outdated information and using his own “discretion” over BLM’s “professional expertise.”
According to Fred Kelly Grant, litigation chairman for Stewards of the Range, Winmill used biological data from 1987 instead of taking into account data that BLM has collected over the past four years concerning forage growth and grouse population. In addition, Grant alleged that Winmill allowed the Western Watershed Project (WWP) to by-pass and evade the administrative process surrounding appeals of BLM management decisions.
“Interesting that if a rancher asks for a stay in an administrative appeal and it is denied, the rancher has to go on through the administrative process,” said Grant. “Winmill in this case, however, said that because the Western Watershed Project wasn’t granted a stay by the administrative judge, they had gone as far as they needed before jumping to his court.”
In addition, Grant said that Winmill ignored a federal law passed through Congress that exempted emergency grazing rules for the Jarbridge Resource Area from the NEPA process. Those special grazing rules were implemented due to a four-year accumulation of extra forage in the area that was leading to very dangerous fire conditions.
“BLM has tried to allow ranchers to use extra grazing of the surplus forage to keep the resource in good shape and to prevent disastrous range fires,” said Grant. “However, anti-grazing organizations have blocked each such attempt. Previously, a challenge to an interim decision by BLM to allow grazing of the surplus grass was assigned to a U.S. magistrate in Idaho. He toured the area and concluded the range was a massive fire waiting to happen and allowed the BLM decision to stand so that the extra grazing would reduce potential fire fuel. The magistrate’s decision was consistent with a congressional rider on an appropriations bill that exempted the decision from NEPA compliance.”
Winmill reversed that decision saying that normal regulatory rules regarding NEPA superceded the congressional rider.
Lloyd Knight, executive vice president of ICA, added that the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals a few months ago ruled that any environmental challenges to federal grazing permits can’t be taken to court until the plaintiffs can come up with factual information to back up their claims of harm or damage to the land in question. In this case, according to Knight, there were no concrete statistics brought forward by WWP.
In terms of the health of the Jarbridge Resource Area, Kelly said that a BLM range technician four years ago found 80 percent of the area to be in fair to excellent condition, compared to 24 percent back in 1987, which is the baseline year that Winmill used to justify his decision.
“He (Winmill) basically substituted his own decision for those that were made by a specialist in the field,” said Grant. “He didn’t give the agency their due deference, and that right there is a violation of law.”
Members of WWP, called Winmill’s decision a wise one and said that they were not threatening livestock producers’ businesses with their efforts.
“We aren’t putting ma and pa rancher out of business here. It’s in the long-term interest of everybody that the lands in the Jarbridge have healthy sage brush and wildlife on them,” said a spokeswoman for WWP.
As of last week, there was no indication that an appeal would be filed on behalf of BLM, but that decision has to be made by the Department of Justice. The deadline for initiating the appeal is the end of August, legal sources said. However, a meeting between BLM, the affected permittees, WWP and Winmill was scheduled for Aug. 17 to see if grazing can remain in place until the decision on an appeal is made. If the meeting doesn’t allow that to happen, livestock will have to be moved off of the 28 allotments by Aug. 19, said Grant.
There are a total of 98,000 AUMs on the 800,000 acres in question, with 11 different permittees making up that total grazing utilization. One of the permitted grazers on the Jarbridge is J.R. Simplot Company.
There is a possibility the impacted ranchers could initiate their own litigation and try to get the BLM decision in the Jarbridge reinstated, and Grant said his group is entertaining the idea of filing an amicus curiae brief if that happens. — Steven D. Vetter, WLJ Editor
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