Judge orders remand of Nevada grazing decision

Feb 18, 2011

Western Watersheds Project (WWP) is on a roll. The anti-grazing group’s policy of targeting grazing permit renewals on public lands in order to curtail or eliminate livestock use has proven highly effective for the second time this year. On Feb. 11, the Department of Interior Office of Hearings and Appeals ordered the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to remand its decision to renew permits on 1,377,000 acres of grazing lands pending a revised National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) analysis on the allotments, which are located in east-central Nevada’s Nye, Eureka, and White Pine counties.

WWP is trumpeting the decision as a major victory. On the WWP website, executive director Jon Marvel explains that "livestock grazing on these public land allotments affects imperiled sage grouse, pygmy rabbits, soils and vegetation. The domestic sheep grazing permitted on these 8 allotments threatens resident Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep with the risk of contracting deadly disease for which bighorn sheep have no immunity."

The victory is particularly sweet for WWP because Administrative Judge Andrew S. Pearlstein’s ruling cites another recent WWP victory in Idaho’s Pahsimeroi Valley as setting precedent for his decision. Pearlstein noted that the Idaho District Court held that even when a land use plan makes land available for grazing, "BLM has full discretion not to issue grazing permits at all, or to issue permits with reduced grazing."

BLM has requested a reconsideration of the Idaho decision on the grounds that it is based upon errors of law.

In the Nevada case, WWP filed an appeal of BLM’s final grazing decision on the Railroad Pass, Newark, Duckwater, Cold Creek, Warm Springs Trail, Corta, South Pancake, and Sand Springs allotments which renewed sheep grazing permits for Paris Livestock of Spring Creek, NV. These allotments are also grazed by cattle and wild horses.

WWP’s complaint claimed BLM had failed to consider an adequate range of alternatives in its environmental assessment (EA). When their complaint was originally filed in May ’10, acting Administrative Judge Harvey C. Sweitzer rejected WWP’s petition for a stay of BLM’s decision to renew the permits. However, the case was reassigned to Pearlstein, who issued a different outcome.

Court documents indicated that the BLM’s EA found that the Duckwater allotment, which at 800,000 acres makes up well over half of the area under assessment, failed every rangeland health standard and was found not to be making significant improvements. Furthermore, all but the Corta allotment were found to have failed standards for wildlife habitat, and all riparian areas assessed failed to meet standards as well.

Although the court noted that BLM determined sheep grazing was not a contributing factor to these failures, it maintained that BLM failed to adequately assess the cumulative impacts of sheep grazing with cattle and horse grazing and so fell afoul of NEPA requirements.

The court also found that although BLM developed a "preferred action" which would set use limits on the amount of grass that the sheep could utilize, BLM failed to consider an adequate range of alternatives because they did not consider an alternative in which the Animal Unit Months on the permit were reduced. This was also deemed a violation of NEPA.

At present, it appears that Paris Livestock will be able to continue grazing the allotments according to the terms of the original permits while BLM prepares a revised EA. The judge’s ruling did not order that grazing be enjoined.

It remains unclear whether BLM will appeal the decision. — Andy Rieber, WLJ Correspondent