Idaho grazing cuts deeper than anticipated

Feb 8, 2013

A series of grazing cutbacks announced on Jan. 28 by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) left ranchers in southwestern Idaho’s Owyhee County reeling, and county officials worrying about the region’s economic future. Over four allotments reviewed for renewal, cuts to number of head and the number of days allowed for grazing ranged from 35 to 47 percent, four times the levels anticipated by the ranchers. With 62 more allotments in the county scheduled for renewal review this year, residents worry that this may be the beginning of an alarming trend.

“We were expecting 8 or 10 percent, maybe 12 on some of the harder used allotments,” says Owyhee County Commissioner Kelly Aberasturi, “but they came back with much more.”

Such stringent cuts, says Aberasturi, are going to have a measurable effect on the county’s largely agriculturally-based economy. “People are going to go out of business,” he says. “Either they go out of business, or they come down out of the hills and start competing for farm land to run their cattle.”

Such a situation, Aberasturi says, leads to bidding wars and unnecessary disputes over the 22 percent of Owyhee County acreage not under federal ownership. The effects, he says, will be felt not only by the ranchers, but by the whole region, including surrounding counties. “Ranching is important, not only for our economy, but for many other aspects of what is going on,” he says. “If we remove the ranchers, for example, it will make it very hard for the county to spend money on things like roads.”

The reviews are the result of a court order by District Court Judge B. Lynn Winmill of Boise following a lawsuit filed by Western Watersheds Project (WWP), a Hailey, ID-based anti-grazing group. In their suit, WWP alleged that BLM was violating the law in the region by not providing adequate habitat for sage grouse, a species listed by BLM as “sensitive.” Under this classification, the species, while not covered by the Endangered Species Act, does warrant special consideration. Winmill ultimately agreed with WWP’s position, and ordered BLM to review 68 allotments within Owyhee County. In particular, he stipulated that measurable habitat improvements must occur every year.

That stipulation, according to BLM Boise District Manager Jim Fincher, is a large part of what made drastic cuts a necessity. “We have to show measurable and observable improvements in each year,” he says. “That’s why the cuts are as aggressive as they are. If we don’t do that, we could be in contempt of the judge’s ruling.”

Fincher points out that failing to meet the judge’s demands could result in a complete removal of grazing across the region. The decisions to cut, he says, were based on a variety of factors. “What was brought to the judge by the litigants is that we weren’t meeting the Idaho standards for rangeland health,” he says. “That’s the focus of our analysis.”

While sage grouse habitat played a role in the process, Fincher indicates that it was not the sole driving force behind the decision to cut grazing. Other considerations he listed included changes in upland vegetation, prevention of invasive weeds, and the need to improve stream banks and wildlife habitat.

“Because of the timeframes we’re under, we had to take a very limited view on the types of prescriptions that we could use to address those situations. Looking at our data, that’s where we came up with the rationale for what cuts needed to be made on each allotment. Doing the right thing for long term ecosystem health, the cuts are necessary.”

Lack of time, however, comes as a thin excuse to Owyhee County officials. While Fincher has held his position for just a few months, Aberasturi points out that BLM knew as early as 2008, as a result of previous litigation, that review of the Owyhee allotments was necessary.

“In May of 2008, they were given until December of 2013 to get these 68 allotments done,” he says. “They didn’t start on it until last summer.” In addition, says Aberasturi, while the county was supposed to coordinate with BLM during this process, they were not informed of the cuts until notices were mailed to the permit holders. “We should have been part of the process from the very beginning,” he says.

Also of concern, Aberasturi contends that BLM failed to account for improvements made by permit holding ranchers when making their analysis, something that should have been factored in.

“If they didn’t do that, what else didn;t they do?” he asks. “If all they are going to do is the part of the process that makes the environmental groups happy, they are catering to special interests. They are not looking at multiple uses for the land, as they are supposed to be.”

According to Fincher, each allotment is being addressed individually, and it is impossible for BLM to predict if reviews of the remaining allotments will follow a similar trend with regard to grazing cuts. Each rancher has 15 days following a notice to appeal the decision, a step that Aberasturi says is already underway on the allotments already reviewed.

The primary concern for now is to seek a stay on the decision, rolling grazing back to 2008 levels in order to let ranchers turn cattle out as scheduled for this year while they contest the decision. Even if a stay is granted, points out Aberasturi, the larger dispute over the necessity of the cuts may mean a return to the courtroom, and the looming prospect of a lengthy and costly battle.

“They’re forcing these ranchers to fight for their livelihoods against their own government.” — Jason Campbell, WLJ Correspondent