Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Western Watersheds sues BLM over grazing, fence building

Group alleges agency is threatening wildlife habitat in aftermath of Murphy fire

By Matt Christensen
Times-News writer

Hailey-based environmental group Western Watersheds Project has sued the Bureau of Land Management, alleging the agency violated a 2005 settlement by authorizing reconstruction on 500,000 acres of federal land burned in last year's Murphy Complex Fire.

The group wants a judge to block the agency from building fences and allowing livestock to graze on the habitat of sage grouse and pygmy rabbit - species under consideration for federal protection under the Endangered Species Act.

The U.S. District Court documents, filed Monday in Boise, ask a judge to halt fence construction in an area managed by the agency's Jarbidge Field Office near Three Creek. The group also wants the court to prohibit livestock grazing on 20 allotments covered in the 2005 court-stipulated settlement and to block grazing on an additional 36 allotments until the agency prepares an environmental impact statement.

Since the July fire, which burned 650,000 acres and destroyed more than 70 prime sage grouse breeding grounds, the agency has worked to rebuild 99 miles of burned fence, remove 12 miles of hazardous trees and plant more than 1,600 shrubs at a cost of about $25 million.

The agency has authorized additional grazing in unburned areas and an additional 400 miles of fence repair while ignoring impacts to wildlife, Western Watersheds alleges.

"BLM reported just before the Murphy Complex Fire that wildlife populations were already in great jeopardy," Katie Fite, Western Watershed's biodiversity director, said in a statement. "Now the fire has taken out the heart of remaining sagebrush habitat. BLM's response has been to intensify grazing in remaining unburned sagebrush. This can only be seen as a policy of grazing for the purposeful extinction of sage grouse and pygmy rabbits."

The group's executive director, Jon Marvel, said ranches in the area managed by Simplot Livestock and Rep. Bert Brackett, R-Rogerson, in particular, are "trampling our wildlife heritage" under the BLM's policies.

Brackett disagrees and questions the timing of the suits. "I find it amazing - not surprising - that they would do that," he said of the lawsuit. "They had their opportunity to appeal the rehab plan last fall just like everybody else รข€- and they did not do so. It's just remarkable."

BLM officials are reviewing the legal documents and could comment next week, said Heather Tiel-Nelson, a BLM spokeswoman in the agency's Twin Falls office.

Meanwhile, the BLM is proceeding with plans to amend its fire prevention program that would affect nearly all of southern Idaho. The amendments, which include changes to 12 land use plans written between 1975 and 1988, call for reducing vegetation and grasses the agency says are responsible for recent large fires like the Murphy blaze.

The proposal would increase fuels treatment from about 25,000 acres to 154,000 acres each year for the next decade. The plan targets trees and grasses in wildland-urban interface areas to protect private property, as well as forested areas where a dangerous amount of vegetation can accumulate.

The public has until the end of this month to protest the new fire proposal, which is available at http://www.blm.gov.

Matt Christensen may be reached at 735-3243 or at matt.christensen@lee.net.

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