Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Civil rights case over Idaho grazing can advance

A Washington state businessman and environmentalist, the high bidder on six Idaho grazing leases in 2006, can proceed with his federal civil rights lawsuit against state officials after they awarded the leases instead to ranchers, who had offered less money in a competitive auction.

A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals last week refused to dismiss the lawsuit filed by Gordon Younger, a Seattle packaging business owner and head of Lazy Y Ranch Ltd. against Lt. Gov. Jim Risch and four other members of the Idaho Board of Land Commissioners. Their Aug. 8, 2006 decision gave the 10-year leases to the second-highest bidders.

Younger is a contributor to the Western Watersheds Project, a group seeking to end grazing on public land in the Rocky Mountains on grounds it damages the environment.

He had planned to outbid ranchers for state leases, then manage the lands to restore what he described was "their degraded streams and wildlife habitats." In his lawsuit, Younger contends his constitutional right to equal protection was violated when he made the highest bid of $5,825 but lost out to ranchers who had previously held the leases, based on the Land Board's bias against conservation groups and out-of-state businesses.

"Under state management, they've not been doing much to protect those areas," Laird Lucas, Younger's lawyer in Boise, told The Associated Press Sunday. "Conservationists can come and bid more money, then improve state land. Everybody should win. But of course, we've had political bias against conservationists."

Lucas also said the Land Board's decision violates provisions of the Idaho Constitution requiring they carefully preserve Idaho state endowment lands to secure the maximum long-term financial return to benefit public schools.

In addition to Risch, who was Idaho's temporary governor at the time of the decision and is now running for U.S. Senate, other defendants include Secretary of State Ben Ysursa; former Superintendent of Public Instruction Marilyn Howard; Attorney General Lawrence Wasden; and Keith Johnson, Idaho's former controller.

Western Watersheds Project has long challenged the Land Board in court to secure competitive state grazing leases. In 1999, the group won three unanimous Idaho Supreme Court decisions, including to eliminate grazing-lease preferences given to ranchers.

In the decision issued Friday, 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Cynthia Holcomb Hall reaffirmed a previous ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Mikel Williams rejecting the state's call for Younger's lawsuit to be dismissed.

"Lazy Y has properly alleged that defendants violated its rights under the Equal Protection Clause, and also that they violated clearly established law," Holcomb Hall wrote, allowing the case to now move forward toward trial.

Before the 2006 decision, an Idaho Department of Lands employee recommended to commissioners they accept the second-highest bids. Allowing Younger to win, the employee concluded, would result in higher administration costs because the lands up for lease were unfenced, allowing cattle from adjacent federal or private land to wander onto them.

Younger then offered to pay for fencing to keep cattle out, as well as provide $30,000 or more for any additional costs; the commissioners rejected his offer on grounds such compensation was "beyond...the expectations at the time of the auction," according to court documents.

In arguments in early August the 9th Circuit panel, a lawyer for the state argued the lawsuit against the Land Board members should be thrown out in part because they had "articulated a legitimate reason for rejecting Lazy Y's bids," according to the documents.

"Defendants are incorrect," Holcomb Hall wrote. "Though defendants assert that they classified only on the basis of the costs associated with prospective lessors' management plans, nothing in the case requires us to accept their explanation. Similarly, while administrative costs might be a valid reason to deny a bidder a lease, it simply does not offer a basis for treating conservationists differently from other bidders."

Contacted by the AP Sunday, Risch, a lawyer and rancher, said he recalls voting to award the leases to the second-highest bidders based only on his concern the Lazy Y proposal wasn't feasible given the locations of the grazing lands and would cost Idaho more than the $30,000 offered.

Risch maintains he was unaware Younger and Lazy Y were affiliated with Western Watersheds Project at the time of the 2006 decision. According to final minutes of the Aug. 8, 2006 meeting reviewed by the AP Sunday, no mention of a connection was made during a discussion of the leases.

"My recollection is, I did not know," Risch said. "If I did, it wouldn't have affected it (my decision). The sole determining factor for me was, what the return to the schools was going to be."

Copyright 2008 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed

Friday, September 26, 2008

Court: No reserved water rights for NM trust land

There are no federally reserved water rights for the millions of acres of state trust land in New Mexico, the state Court of Appeals has ruled.

In an important case involving water law in the West, the court rejected claims made by the State Land Office that a federal legal doctrine reserved water rights for lands granted to New Mexico by the federal government when it became a territory and then a state.

At issue is a legal doctrine that recognizes water rights for tribal lands as well as federal lands that make up national forests, military bases and national parks.

The court's decision Wednesday came in a case involving the adjudication of water rights in the San Juan River Basin of northwestern Mexico. In the river system, there are nearly 300,000 acres of trust land.

The Land Office manages about 13 million of acres of land across New Mexico, generating money for public schools and other institutions from oil and natural gas production on the lands as well as grazing, mining and real estate development.

New Mexico's top water official, the state engineer, as well as the Navajo Nation, Jicarilla Apache Nation and Ute Mountain Ute Tribe had opposed the water rights claim for trust lands.

"The Court of Appeals got it exactly right," D.L. Sanders, chief counsel for the state engineer, said in an interview.

He said no state court has recognized federal reserved water rights for state trust lands in the West although the legal question has come up in other places, including Arizona and Montana.

"By everybody's calculation, this was a huge stretch in the legal theories," Sanders said.

Had water rights been reserved for New Mexico's trust lands, Sanders said, it would have been a "sweeping change in law" and disrupted the current system that allocates rights for using water. Federal reserved water rights typically are more senior than those held by private landowners or municipalities in New Mexico, giving them a greater priority in times of drought when not enough water is available to cover the demands of all users.

Last year, a state district court in San Juan County rejected the claim made by the Land Office.

The Court of Appeals affirmed the decision.

The lands conveyed to New Mexico by acts of Congress from 1850 to 1910 "were never withdrawn from the public domain and reserved for a federal purpose. As such, it necessarily follows that any attendant federal reserved water rights that the commissioner now claims in connection with those lands were also not impliedly reserved," the court said in an opinion written by Judge James Weschler.

A spokeswoman from the Land Office did not immediately return a telephone message seeking comment on the case or whether the ruling would be appealed to the state Supreme Court.
AAE Letter To Bingaman

September 23, 2008

The Honorable Jeff Bingaman
Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee
304 Dirksen Senate Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20510

Dear Mr. Chairman:

The recent announcement that the U.S. Department of Interior Inspector General has opened an investigation into possible illegal coordination between lobbyists for environmental groups and federal officials of the National Landscape Conservation System calls for an immediate investigation and hearings by your committee. We encourage you to undertake this action immediately and before the upcoming November election due to the nature of the potential impact such alleged activities may have now and in the new Administration.

Because the focus of the IG investigation is centered on potential illegal conduct involving two giant national environmental groups – the National Wildlife Federation and the Wilderness Society -- with extensive political agendas and interests in many areas subject to the Interior Department’s jurisdiction, it is imperative that you immediately ascertain if this is an isolated incident, or evidence of a pattern of criminal behavior that may extend to other offices in the Department.

The National Wildlife Federation and the Wilderness Society are multi-million dollar enterprises with clear national political and environmental agendas that require action by many federal departments, agencies and the Congress. Needless to say, the brazen conduct of holding regular meetings that reportedly illegally coordinated lobbying efforts and activities between these two groups and the NCLS is quite disturbing. It begs the question whether these contacts and reported coordination of illegal lobbying activities was limited to this one federal office, or whether it was the point of contact where federal officials could help the National Wildlife Federation and the Wilderness Society extend this activity elsewhere within the Interior Department?

One has to wonder that because this alleged illegal activity was being conducted apparently in the open with several environmental groups in attendance, whether the leadership of these groups would also attempt to encourage this behavior in other federal offices in pursuit of their lobby agenda. In addition, published reports where apparently jobs were being discussed also calls into question whether this activity is designed to place individuals into sensitive government jobs that then are controlled by these environmental groups, both now and in the next Administration.

This investigation also calls into question any action that might be taken this year on S. 3213, particularly the inclusion of the “National Landscape Conservation System Act” (S. 1139), until this situation is concluded. The cloud hanging over the NCLS alone should disqualify any consideration of this legislation this year. The allegations of collusion between the national environmental groups lobbying hard for this bill and the staff of the Interior agency that would be the subject of this legislation are enough under any reasonable assessment to shelve this legislation immediately until justice takes its course.

Frankly, the possibilities of more widespread corruption are staggering. Your Committee is in a very important position to take the leadership necessary to open this investigation and assert your oversight in this troubling abuse of the public trust. We urge this be done immediately and that you begin to shine the disinfecting light of sunshine on this matter.


J. Greg Schnacke
President & CEO
Americans for American Energy

cc: The Honorable Dirk Kempthorne

DENVER, CO – A coalition of Western business leaders is urging Congress not to reward “scandalous and potentially illegal behavior” by enacting legislation to establish the National Landscape Conservation System (NLCS) within the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

The “National Landscape Conservation System Act” (S. 1139) is a bill to statutorily establish the National Landscape Conservation System (NLCS) within the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). It is one of over 90 bills contained in a omnibus lands package (S. 3213) being prepared for Senate Floor consideration by Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee Chair Jeff Bingaman.

General at the U.S. Department of the Interior has initiated an investigation for possible violations of anti-lobbying law by federal employees at the NLCS. Emails and other documents obtained by the House Resources Committee Minority staff raise serious questions about the degree and extent of communications and coordination between top officials of the NLCS and environmental lobbyists.

In a letter sent to Senator Bingaman today, the Roundtable urged the Senator and his colleagues to postpone consideration of language relating to NLCS that would statutorily establish the NLCS within the BLM.

“As you undoubtedly know, federal law prohibits federal employees from using appropriated funds or their official positions to lobby Congress. If these accusations prove to be accurate, federal employees at NLCS actively supported and participated in efforts designed (directly or indirectly) to encourage government officials to favor the NLCS legislation. This would be in violation of 18 U.S.C. 1913,” noted Jim Sims, President and CEO of the Roundtable.

The NLCS was first concocted in 2000, by then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, through administrative mandate. The NLCS covers a vast amount of territory of various types and quality, consisting of tens of millions of acres of federal lands administered by the BLM including National Monuments, National Conservation Areas, Wilderness and Wilderness Study Areas, Wild and Scenic Rivers, and National Scenic and Historic Trails. The vast majority of these lands are located in 12 Western states.

“If the Inspector General finds that public officials were indeed using their time, office, and influence to lobby for NLCS legislation, what kind of message does Congress send to the American public if it turns around and enacts the very legislation these federal employees were illegally promoting?” said Sims.

“The least we can do is wait until the Inspector General and/or the Justice Department have adequate time to investigate these charges. It would be a shame to allow rogue government employees to benefit from inappropriate and illegal behavior,” Sims added.

For more information on the details of S. 1139, see the Roundtable letter to Bingaman

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Congressional Probe Of Enviro Groups Urged Over Lobbying Of Interior Department Agency

For Immediate Release: Sept. 24, 2008
Contact: Greg Schnacke, 866-416-0869

Washington, D.C. -- Potential illegal coordination between U.S. Interior Department officials and several national environmental groups, currently being investigated by the Interior Inspector General, should also be investigated by Congressional oversight committees, according to Americans for American Energy.

Americans for American Energy Wednesday asked U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall (D-WV), Chair of the House Resource Committee, and U.S. Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), Chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, to convene oversight hearings on the matter.

News of the IG investigation was unveiled late last week by U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT), ranking Member on the U.S. House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Parks and Public Lands, who said that he was informed of the investigation involving the Wilderness Society, National Wildlife Federation and possible improper contacts with the National Landscape Conservation System (NLCS) on September 18.

Bishop indicated in a statement that e-mails and other documents collected b the Inspector General’s office of the U.S. Interior Department show extensive coordination between environmental lobbyists and NLCS top officials.

These activities appear to include coordination of lobbying, agency requests for budget language from environmental lobbyists, setting up NLCS events, review of official memorandums, and other potentially illegal exchanges, Bishop said.

The Interior IG is also collecting and reviewing travel documents as part of the investigation, the Congressman added.

“The Inspector General needs to quickly determine how far this goes, but the Congressional oversight process must be brought into play as well,” said Greg Schnacke, President and CEO of Americans for American Energy, a non-profit grassroots energy education organization based in Denver, Colorado. “The Wilderness Society and the National Wildlife Federation spend millions of dollars pursuing an anti-American energy political agenda. The question we have is how far does this extend and does is it more extensive than simply the NLCS?”

AAE also called on Congress to shelve action on Omnibus Public Land Management Act (S. 3213), and in particular the portion of the bill directly affecting the NLCS, the “National Landscape Conservation System Act” (S. 1139).

"This investigation calls into question any action that might be taken this year on S. 3213, particularly the inclusion of the National Landscape Conservation System Act (S. 1139), until this situation is concluded. The cloud hanging over the NCLS alone should disqualify any consideration of this legislation this year. The allegations of collusion between the national environmental groups lobbying hard for this bill and the staff of the Interior agency that would be the subject of the this legislation are enough under any reasonable assessment to shelve this legislation immediately until justice takes its course,” Schnacke stated in his letter to Rahall and Bingaman.

Published reports indicate that NLCS officials met regularly with environmental groups, often at the Wilderness Society’s Washington, D.C. offices to coordinate federal lobbying strategy and messaging. Federal law generally prohibits federal employees from using appropriated funds or their official positions to lobby Congress.

"It is the job of the Congress to provide oversight and investigate whenever there are such allegations of misconduct and misuse of taxpayer dollars," Schnacke said. "If the committees refuse to conduct such oversight, it will be sending a message to the American people that it intends to turn a blind eye to such activities."

“You can’t tell me this is an isolated incident,” added Schnacke. “The political agenda of the NWF and the Wilderness Society is too broad and touches more in the Interior Department than just the NLCS. I am sure the leadership at Interior will also be very interested whether other employees in other agencies may be a little too cozy with the Wilderness Society and the National Wildlife Federation.”

“AAE encourages the IG to get to the bottom of this immediately, and the U.S. House and Senate to investigate this as well. These investigations should begin prior to this election, given that some of these individuals may be planning to get jobs and important policy positions in the new Administration,” said Schnacke.
IG investigating coordination by BLM and enviro groups, congressman says

Noelle Straub, E&E Daily reporter

The Interior inspector general is investigating possible illegal coordination between lobbyists for environmental groups and federal officials of the National Landscape Conservation System, Rep. Rob Bishop said yesterday.

Interior officials informed his office about the investigation into the NLCS, which is a division of the Bureau of Land Management, the Utah Republican said in a statement.

E-mails and other documents show extensive coordination between top NLCS officials and environmental lobbyists, said Bishop, the top Republican on the National Parks, Forests and Public Lands Subcommittee.

The main groups involved appear to be the Wilderness Society and the National Wildlife Federation, a House GOP aide said. At some point NLCS officials had weekly meetings with these and other groups, often at the Wilderness Society's office, to coordinate lobbying strategy and messaging, the aide said.

E-mails show that NLCS officials requested environmental groups to write budget language, the aide added. E-mails also talk about coordinating lobbying efforts, setting up NLCS events, sending out draft memorandums for each other to review and preparing for congressional hearing.

The federal and advocacy officials exchanged resumes and job announcements in their respective organizations and BLM, the aide said. Travel documents are still being collected and reviewed and will be part of the investigation, the aide added.

Federal law generally prohibits federal employees from using appropriated funds or their official positions to lobby Congress.

Kevin Mack, NLCS campaign director with the Wilderness Society, said he was unaware of the investigation. "I don't know what the investigation is about, have not been called by the IG, so I can't say anything more than that," Mack said.

Both his groups work on public lands issues and are in contact with many people related to their work, Mack added. "I don't know what 'there' is there."

NWF spokeswoman Jennifer Jones said the group has not been contacted by the IG's office.

Interior spokeswoman Tina Kreisher said the department had no comment at this time. An inspector general spokesman could not be reached by press time.

Bishop said the Interior Department should act quickly to halt any improper activities involving advocacy groups and the NLCS. He also called on employees involved in the investigation to step aside from their positions until the inspector general finishes his work.

"The department must insist that any employee involved in violations of the anti-lobbying law step aside until the inspector general or the Justice Department has reviewed his or her conduct," Bishop said. "Just as the employees of the royalty-in-kind program at MMS learned, we will not tolerate misconduct by public officials."

Bishop was referring to a sex, drugs and financial favors investigation of Minerals Management Service employees recently completed by the Interior inspector general, on which the full committee held a hearing yesterday (E&ENews PM, Sept. 18).

Former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt established NLCS during the Clinton administration to grant protections to ecologically and historically valuable lands controlled by BLM.

But Babbitt's designation did not codify the system, meaning a later Interior secretary could dissolve it. When the House approved a bill in April codifying it, Bishop complained the House Rules Committee blocked GOP amendments, including one by him that would have addressed the private property rights he said were threatened by what he called a "vague legislative entity."

Monday, September 22, 2008


Oral Arguments Oct. 8, 2008

Summers v. Earth Island Institute (07-463)

Earth Island Institute and other conservation groups sued the United States Forest Service after it authorized application of regulations 36 C.F.R. 215.4(a) and 36 C.F.R. 215.12(f) to a planned salvage logging project in the Sequoia National Forest. The conservation groups claimed that the regulations, which limit public notice, comment and administrative appeals, were invalid under the Administrative Procedure Act, which protects the ability of the public to appeal administrative actions. The parties settled the dispute over the regulations as they were applied to the salvage logging project, but the conservation groups continued the suit as a direct facial challenge to the regulations themselves. At issue before the Supreme Court in this case is whether judicial review of the regulations was proper, whether the conservation groups established standing and ripeness to challenge the regulations after settling the controversy over the regulations’ application to the specific project, and whether issuing a nationwide injunction was a proper remedy. The outcome of the case will influence federal agencies’ requirements to provide administrative appeals, the ability of the public to challenge administrative actions, and the scope of equitable remedies against improper applications of agency regulations....


This case rests on whether individuals may appeal agency regulations only as they are applied to specific agency actions, or whether individuals may challenge the validity of regulations without linking the challenge to a specific agency project. The Forest Service argues that under the APA, only as-applied regulations may be challenged. The conservation groups, on the other hand, argue that the APA supports direct, facial challenges to agency regulations. The Supreme Court’s decision will affect the rights of individuals to contest unlawful agency regulations and the scope of federal agencies’ responsibilities to provide administrative appeals. The decision will likely clarify the balance between agencies’ autonomy and their transparency toward the public, which will have ramifications for advocacy groups, industry members, and federal agencies.
Sheep grazing limits proposed to protect bighorns

Payette National Forest officials are considering a ban on domestic sheep grazing in some areas frequented by wild bighorns.

If approved, the plan would force several ranchers to give up grazing areas in parts of Hells Canyon and the Salmon River canyon. The draft plan is open to comment for 90 days.

Once a final decision is made, each individual grazing decision will be handled separately, forest Supervisor Suzanne Rainville told The Idaho Statesman.

The environmental review and draft plan followed an order by U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill in 2007 that ranchers move their sheep off of five allotments in Hells Canyon to protect the wild sheep.

Domestic sheep carry some diseases to which they have resistance but that can spread to more vulnerable wild bighorns.

In the draft, the Forest Service said Canada and the United States have a long history of large-scale, sudden, all-age die-offs in bighorn sheep populations, many of them associated with domestic animal contact.

Hearings on the draft plan are scheduled Oct. 6 at the Holiday Inn on Vista near Interstate 84 in Boise and Oct. 29 at the Payette National Forest supervisor's office in McCall, both at 6 p.m.
NM Game and Fish recommends cougar hunting changes

Conservationists who have been seeking changes in the way New Mexico wildlife officials manage cougar hunts are throwing their support behind agency recommendations that they say will help maintain the big cats' population.

The state Game and Fish Department is recommending that the agency provide information on its Web site to teach hunters the difference between male and female cats to ensure that more breeding females are left in the wild and kittens are not orphaned.

The department is also recommending that a cougar control program aimed at reducing depredation of livestock in the southeastern part of the state come to an end.

Those recommendations and others dealing with New Mexico's big game hunting rules for the 2009 and 2010 seasons will be taken up by the state Game Commission at its Oct. 2 meeting.

"We try to present what we think are valid recommendations, whatever the species is," said Marty Frentzel, a department spokesman.

Wendy Keefover-Ring, director of carnivore protection for WildEarth Guardians, said she could not be more pleased with the department's proposals.

"I think this takes New Mexico out of the dark ages of mountain lion management and puts it up into the front in terms of adopting the best available science," she said.

WildEarth Guardians and Animal Protection of New Mexico had requested that the department require hunters to take an online cougar education and identification course prior to obtaining a hunting license.

Keefover-Ring said she hopes the Game Commission approves the course. Colorado is currently the only state with a mandatory cougar ID program, and she said it took several years to make that happen.

If approved, Frentzel said it would be up to the commission to decide whether the course is voluntary or mandatory.

While New Mexico game officials have said the state's cougar population is healthy, WildEarth Guardians and Animal Protection of New Mexico contend that too many female cats are being killed during hunting season.

The groups say more than two-fifths of all cougars killed in New Mexico since 1999 have been females. They say mother cats play an important role in protecting, feeding and teaching their kittens survival skills.

As part of its recommendations, Game and Fish suggests that only a quarter of cougar harvests in each hunting zone be females. If the number of female kills comes within 10 percent of that limit, the department could shut down hunting in that area.

Keefover-Ring called that "a huge step forward toward protecting females," but she said the department should consider dropping the percentage of female kills even lower.

The groups also wanted the department to stop spending tens of thousands of dollars each year on snaring mountain lions in southeastern New Mexico to benefit livestock owners.

Keefover-Ring called the depredation prevention program "expensive and stupid," saying sheep grazing in the area has declined tremendously in just a few years and that ranchers have other non-lethal means of ensuring that their livestock do not become prey.

Frentzel said the current contract to trap cougars in the southeast will expire in January. While the department recommends ending the program, he said it will be up to the Game Commission to decide whether that happens in January or the trapper is given 30 days' notice.

The department is still receiving comments on other aspects of mountain lion hunting—for example, whether year-round hunting on private land should be allowed. Frentzel said the commission will have to make that decision after hearing from the public.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Inspector General Starts Investigation Into Improper Coordination Between NLCS Employees & Environmental Advocacy Organizations

U.S. Rep Rob Bishop (R-Utah), called on the Interior Department to act quickly to halt any improper activities involving the National Landscape Conservation System (NLCS) and environmental advocacy organizations.

Bishop is the Ranking Member on the National Parks, Forests and Public Lands Subcommittee.

Department officials have told Bishop’s office that the Department’s Inspector General has started an investigation into the NLCS, a division of the Bureau of Land management, after reviewing documents related to the agency.

Bishop further asked that employees involved in the investigation step aside from their positions and relinquish their duties until the investigation is completed by the Inspector General.

Federal law generally prohibits federal employees from using appropriated funds or their official positions to lobby Congress. Emails and other documents being reviewed by the Department show extensive coordination between top NLCS officials and lobbyists for environmental groups.

“The Department must insist that any employee involved in violations of the Anti-Lobbying Law step aside until the Inspector General or the Justice Department has reviewed his or her conduct,” Bishop said. “Just as the employees of the royalty-in-kind program at MMS learned, we will not tolerate misconduct by public officials.”

Federal law generally prohibits federal employees from using appropriated funds or their official positions to lobby Congress. Emails and other documents being reviewed by the Department show extensive coordination between top NLCS officials and lobbyists for environmental groups.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Wolf population in MT, WY, ID is decreasing or 'static'

For the first time since reintroduction, the wolf population in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho is decreasing or at best is static, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The mid-year wolf population was estimated at 1,545 in 2007. This year the estimate is 1,455, which means a decrease of 90.

Since wolf re-introduction 10 years ago, the population has grown an average of 24 percent a year, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

This year 400 pups were expected to survive to adulthood, but that's not happening. In the greater Yellowstone area, pups are dying at a high rate, the FWS said. The cause of those deaths is suspected to be distemper contracted from domestic dogs.

The FWS said the new population estimates have nothing to do with this week's decision not to seek wolf delisting, but an attorney for groups who sued to stop the delisting claims it points to a problem.

"Where we have state laws that promote the eradication of wolves and that wolf population had not even met Fish and Wildlife's own recovery standards, that's not good enough. It may be good enough for government work, but it's not good enough for Yellowstone wolves," said Doug Honnold of the Earth Justice Legal Defense Fund.

Last year 186 wolves were killed in the three states. This year FWS estimates the number will be as many as 250.

FWS spokesperson Ed Bangs said it could be that wolf populations are leveling off or that this is simply a one year anomaly.
Feds keeping Northern Rockies wolf listed for now

The government won't immediately try to take gray wolves in the Northern Rockies off the endangered species list, a federal wildlife official said Tuesday.

Ed Bangs, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service coordinator, said the government in the next week expects to withdraw a rule that declared wolves fully recovered. That rule, issued in March, would have allowed public hunting for the region's approximately 1,500 wolves.

Wildlife agencies in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming have already started preparations for such hunts. But they had been in doubt since July, when U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy blocked the states from going forward pending resolution of a lawsuit by environmentalists.

"Hopefully, they'll go back to the drawing board and come up with a new plan that better protects wolves," said Earthjustice attorney Doug Honnold, who had sued on behalf of a dozen environmental groups that argue wolves in the region remain imperiled.

The decision to withdraw the recovery rule is subject to final approval by the Department of Justice. Molloy also would have to sign off before it could take effect.

In his July injunction against the planned hunts, Molloy raised concerns about whether wolves would have enough genetic diversity, through breeding, to sustain their population.

Molloy also questioned Wyoming's lack of regulations on the killing of wolves. Outside Yellowstone National Park and adjacent areas, wolves are classified as predators, allowing them to be shot on sight.

Bangs, coordinator for the government's Northern Rockies wolf recovery program, said he still believes there are enough wolves to merit public hunting. But he said the government needs to adequately explain why wolves no longer need federal protection before making a new proposal.

"This means you do away with the de-listing rule and give it back to the Fish and Wildlife Service to think about more," he said. "There's going to be a thorough, fine-toothed comb going through it to decide what we can do better."

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Grazing sheep to protect Carson City from wildfire

Next spring, four-legged firefighters will gather in the hills west of Carson City in a battle against an invading grass that's boosting the risk of wildfire.

For the fourth straight year, sheep will be used to munch away at fields of grasses growing in an area already seared by fire near Nevada's capital.

"The idea is to use sheep to hit that area a little harder," said Genny Wilson, chief of the U.S. Forest Service's Carson Ranger District.

The primary target is cheatgrass, an invasive annual grass that first appeared in Nevada in 1906 and has since spread across tens of millions of acres in the Great Basin, crowding out native vegetation on many hills and fields in Northern Nevada.

The stuff thrives in areas already burned by fire and when dry can fuel future fires in the same place.

"Its flammability is like gasoline," said Mike Dondero, state fire management officer.

Experts have mowed and used herbicides and toxic fungus to battle the spread of cheatgrass.

Sheep grazing is another tool being tried. After a successful 1999 test on Carson City's C Hill by the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension, sheep have been used to graze the region in 2006, 2007 and 2008.

The effort beginning in May targets 5,500 acres. It's part of more than 17,000 acres that have burned in the area since 1980, including 8,799 acres consumed during the Waterfall Fire of 2004, according to a Forest Service report.

In addition to cheatgrass, the sheep, provided by rancher Ted Borda for only the cost of transportation, also will remove Medusahead, another nonnative annual grass.

And these hungry critters also will be munching on wheatgrass, which was deliberately planted in the wake of the Waterfall Fire to help stabilize soil but is now flourishing in areas to the detriment of native vegetation.

"Now, we want to take that plant out and get the natives back in," Wilson said.

That's particularly important because the affected area of the Carson Range serves as critical winter habitat for mule deer, which need native forage like bitterbrush to survive.

The program builds upon Carson City's active program to protect open space, going beyond efforts to simply preserve scenery, said Juan Guzman, the city's open space manager.

"Now, we're managing land, and the emphasis is on reducing the fuels," Guzman said. "It's something really meaningful to our community, I hope."

While the effort looks promising, the long-term effectiveness of sheep control cheatgrass spread is unknown, Wilson said.

Nevada State Forester Pete Anderson said the use of sheep, as well as goats, offers "a lot of potential" to reduce fire danger, particularly in places where communities abut wild areas such as at the targeted area of Carson City.

"It can be very effective," Anderson said. "One of the problems is we don't have the number of livestock we used to. They can be hard to get."

Friday, September 12, 2008

How Might Climate Change Affect Native Grasslands?

Ten miles west of Cheyenne, carbon-dioxide levels are nearly twice as high as they are in the city.

Well, at least in some test plots at the High Plains Grasslands Research Station.

Thirty plots of native grasslands are part of an experiment to determine how local prairies could react to climate change. The results could shape congressional policy decisions, as well as rangeland management in the Rocky Mountain region.

Wyoming's semi-arid landscape also is a good place to start, since grasslands cover more than 40 percent of the Earth's surface.

"What makes it tricky is that weather and climate, by nature, are variable," said project leader and plant physiologist Dr. Jack Morgan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "You look out at this field, and there are probably 100 different plant species. To predict which ones will be the winners and losers is difficult."

Experts know that the environment changes when a rancher puts cattle out to graze. What they don't know is how climate change will impact the animals' preferred meals or the invasive weeds that share the same space. Wyoming and southern New Mexico share similar precipitation levels, but dissimilar temperatures shape the scenery within each state.

"Ranchers stock grasslands according to how much forage is available when," he added.

Ecologists, plant physiologists and soil scientists at the High Plains Grasslands Research Station are comparing the effects of elevated levels of carbon dioxide, temperature and rainfall on spring and summer plant species. Morgan said the 2 -year-old project is a collaborative effort between the USDA, the University of Wyoming and Colorado State University.

Rings of pipe corral each site above ground, while a thin layer of plastic carves through the soil two feet down. Some of the rings "hiss" with the constant release of carbon dioxide. Infrared heaters hang over other locations to simulate a planet that is a few degrees hotter than it is today.

He said cool-season plants like western wheatgrass seem to thrive with additional carbon dioxide. But warm-season species such as the blue gramma are better at adapting to the extra heat. The challenge for scientists is to determine the overall result of the combination of factors.

Morgan said the experiment is only one of a handful worldwide that evaluates more than one feature of climate change. Part of the reason is time. It takes several years to accumulate solid data. Another problem is the cost. He said it takes $250,000 each year to run the carbon dioxide and heating equipment.

High-tech cameras also are used to gauge the topsoil and root system changes under each scenario, said Dan LeCain, site field manager and plant physiologist with the USDA. He added that 80 percent of a grasslands ecosystem is located underground, making root depth an important factor to consider.

But if Wyoming's researchers know the impacts of climate change on one grasslands environment, they will have a pretty good idea how global warming could impact similar ecosystems across the globe, he said.
Wrangling more water than cows

When the branding begins, Brandon Humphries is on horseback, his lasso turning slow loops in the air above a herd of nervous calves.
One by one, he snares the animals by their hind legs and drags them to a waiting group of ranch hands, who go to work with vaccine guns and an electric iron.
The air fills with white smoke and the smell of scorched hair.
After about an hour of this, Humphries climbs down from the saddle and right into the path of a calf that has slipped away from the ground crew. He wrestles the 200-pound animal to the ground, then pops back up with a grin on his face and a splash of green manure across the front of his long-sleeved work shirt.
He looks down at the stain and shrugs. "Shirt was going to get dirty eventually anyway," he says.
A scene like this is not unusual in the lonesome valleys of White Pine County. This kind of work has been going on here for more than a century.
What's strange is who Humphries' boss is.
Last year the Southern Nevada Water Authority hired him to run the string of ranches it now owns in Spring Valley, about 40 miles east of Ely. His authority-issued business cards identify him as "ranch manager," a position that rarely, if ever, shows up in the staff directory of a major municipal water supplier.
Humphries' job is to oversee Great Basin Ranch, a collection of seven agricultural operations the authority has snapped up since 2006.
The water agency's holdings in Spring Valley now include more than 23,000 acres, 4,000 sheep, 1,700 cows, a working hay farm, and the rights to more than 13 billion gallons of surface water and groundwater each year.
The authority also has acquired more than 1 million acres of federal grazing rights, including a sheep range that stretches more than halfway to Las Vegas, some 250 miles away.
The purchases were made to support a scheme to tap groundwater across eastern Nevada.
By as early as 2013, the authority hopes to start sending water south through a pipeline that is expected to cost between $2 billion and $3.5 billion. Authority General Manager Pat Mulroy has described Spring Valley as the "anchor basin" for the project. More than half of the water destined to one day fill the pipeline is expected to come from there.
The water project has stirred fierce opposition, and so have the purchases in Spring Valley.
Critics say the authority paid way too much for the ranches and now runs them with a mixture of incompetence and reckless spending.
Rancher and Assemblyman Pete Goicoechea considers it public money down the drain.
"If they had to pay for those ranches with the way they're running their livestock, they'd be broke in three years," says the Republican from Eureka. "It doesn't matter who's running them, though. Christ couldn't come off the cross to run those ranches and break even with what they paid for them."
But water authority officials insist the deals make sense in the proper context: They didn't buy the ranches for the livestock or the land. They weren't looking to break into the cattle industry or set up a rural retreat where city folk could play cowboy for a weekend. They were after one thing.
"We're paying market value for water," Humphries explains. "We're not buying a ranch for a ranch."
And if authority officials have their way, at least some of their new groundwater holdings in Spring Valley will be sent down the pipeline to Las Vegas one day.
Beyond that, the authority hasn't developed a long-term plan for the ranches yet. Though they are projected to operate at or near the break-even point starting this year, it might not make sense to keep them running as they are forever, officials say.
One idea is to open up the land to the state's university system as a sort of living laboratory for agricultural and environmental research. Another idea involves setting aside a portion of the property as a public natural area.
Authority Deputy General Manager Dick Wimmer says some changes undoubtedly will be made, but it's too early to say what those might be.
In the meantime, authority officials have one very compelling reason to keep ranching and farming on their property: Under Nevada law, you either use your water rights or you lose them.

The team

In the first two hours of branding, the water authority's calves stop lowing only once, when a single clap of thunder crashes down from a dark cloud gathering over nearby Wheeler Peak.
The animals wait in stunned silence for a few seconds to see what might happen next. Then they start up again.
The ranch hands greet the thunder with a holler.
Now it's a race against the weather. As any rancher will tell you, it's damned hard to brand a wet calf.
Most of these cows and steers were born in Spring Valley within the last 50 days. Each is roped and dragged backward across the grass to ground crew members who restrain it with a metal device known as a Nord fork.
In addition to the brand burned onto its right hip, each animal gets two vaccine shots. The males get castrated.
When it's over, the calves are turned loose to rejoin their mothers, which seems to calm them instantly.
The whole process takes about a minute and moves in a way that suggests an assembly line or a pit stop at a NASCAR race, with one key difference: Cars don't fight back.
"It's interesting to see how they do their business, how quick it is," says water authority biologist Zane Marshall, who stops by the corral to watch for a few minutes.
After snapping some pictures on his digital camera, he tries his hand once with the branding iron, then heads back out to continue his work.
Marshall is in Spring Valley to check on a contract crew hired by the authority to map the area's vegetation. The crew's work will help fill in the detail on aerial photos of the valley.
The goal is to catalog the existing flora and fauna so any impacts from the groundwater transfer can be tracked more easily once the pumps are turned on.
"It supports long-term monitoring," says Marshall, who manages the authority's Environmental Resources Division.
His team is also tracing the movements of sage grouse in the valley. Five of the birds have been fixed with radio telemetry collars, a process that sounds a lot easier than it ought to be.
Basically, Marshall says, you find them where they roost at night, shine a spotlight in their eyes and crank some loud music.
"Def Leppard or Metallica," he says. "It depends on when you were born."
Then you just scoop up the stunned birds with a net.
Humphries, who went along on one of the grouse roundups, says ranchers and wildlife biologists don't often mix, let alone collaborate as they do at Great Basin Ranch.
"Usually he doesn't like what I'm doing, and I don't like what he's going to do," Humphries says of a biologist like Marshall. "Here we're colleagues on the same team working for the same purpose."

On the ground

Spring Valley is a patchwork quilt of sagebrush, greasewood and meadow grass, stitched here and there with stream-fed ribbons of willow and silver maple trees. It is also a science textbook flipped open to the chapter on basin and range geology.
At about 25 miles wide and 110 miles long, it runs north-south between mountain blocks that rise sharply on either side like Cenozoic parentheses.
To the west is the Schell Creek Range, to the east the Snake Range, crowned by Wheeler Peak, Nevada's second highest summit at 13,063 feet.
The so-called "Loneliest Road in America," U.S. Highway 50, crosses the valley's midsection like a belt, its buckle the junction where U.S. 93 arrives from the south.
The authority bought its first ranch here in 2006. Within a year, Nevada's largest wholesale water supplier owned more private land in the valley than anyone else.
The almost $79 million buying frenzy has led some to predict that the authority could one day own all of the private property in Spring Valley.
The water authority's Mulroy won't rule that out, but she doesn't think it will be necessary.
"The strategic ranches we needed to protect sensitive species in the area we got. And the ranches with the greatest opportunity for reinjecting water into the groundwater table, we got those, too," she says.
As Wimmer explains it, Great Basin Ranch is "not looked at as a profit center" but as a "holistic" way to manage Spring Valley's water and environmental resources. As a result, he says, what goes on there at times might bear little resemblance to a typical livestock operation, where the bottom line is all there is.
Already, the authority is busy upgrading equipment, examining ways to improve water efficiency, and opening the property up to a small army of hydrologists and biologists whose primary mission is to make the pipeline pay off.
The authority's opponents see a more sinister motive at work.
"The only reason they bought those ranches was to provide a buffer. If they own them there's no one there to cry foul" if the water table drops, Assemblyman Goicoechea says. "They can say what they want, but that's why they bought the valley."
The cowboy lawmaker does agree with Las Vegas water officials on one point: They aren't running their ranches in a way he's ever seen.
"There's some things they've done that have some people in the industry grinning," he says.
At a recent livestock auction, for example, Great Basin Ranch agreed to some unusual sale conditions for its calves that could needlessly stress the animals and reduce their value when they are weighed for delivery in the fall, Goicoechea says. "They were the laughingstock of the auction."
Not everyone is upset by the authority's presence in Spring Valley.
Dennis Eldridge ranches on neighboring land that has been in his family since 1917. He thinks the authority is "doing fine" so far.
"They do things a little differently, but they've been fine with us," he says. "They've been a good neighbor."
It should be noted that the Eldridge family is in talks to sell its 6,300-acre spread to the authority. It should also be noted that Dennis Eldridge has a reputation for speaking his mind.
He says some fellow ranchers are jealous of Great Basin Ranch's new equipment and bottomless financial backing. Others just don't like change.
He says people are always anxious at first when a "foreign entity" moves into the valley, especially one affiliated with the government, which he jokingly refers to as "the big thumb."
As far as Eldridge is concerned, though, it's the people on the ground who count.
"Brandon's always been a good neighbor," he says. "He's helped us even before they (the authority) came along."
Along with Humphries, the authority directly employs three ranch hands, two of them college graduates with degrees in plant or animal science.
About 30 contract workers make up the rest of the staff. Some are here from Mexico and Peru on work visas that allow them to stay for months or years at a time.
There's plenty of work to go around, especially on branding day.
Several members of the day's crew were up before the sun, moving wheel lines that keep the alfalfa green and tending to the two dairy cows that keep the ranch supplied with milk.
Ranch hand Latara Pickering has logged 127 hours of work in the last two weeks.
Her brother, Matt Pickering, literally can't remember the last time he had a vacation. Ask him, and he has to think about it for a minute. "I went and picked up my brother at the airport," he finally says.
To brand every new calf on the ranch takes six full days scattered over three weeks. After that, the animals are turned out for five months to graze and pack on about 250 pounds each.
In early November, the animals will be loaded into trailers and trucked to their final stop before the slaughterhouse: a ranch near California where they will be "finished" with more grazing aimed at adding another 500 pounds of beef.
Humphries says the cattle operation near Bakersfield, Calif., agreed to buy the authority's first full batch of calves based on a video of the animals that was shown during an Aug. 1 auction in Winnemucca.
When a smaller group of cows and steers were sold and shipped off the ranch last fall, the line of cattle trucks stretched for a mile, he says.

Back in the saddle

A water utility with ranch property is not as unusual as you might think.
The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California leases some of its land for agricultural use. So do Denver Water, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, and several municipal water companies in Arizona.
What makes the arrangement in Spring Valley unusual is the water authority's decision to staff its property rather than lease it.
For Humphries, that meant a new opportunity at an opportune time.
"At that point, I needed a job," he says. "I knew the ranch, and they needed someone to look after their investment."
Humphries moved to Spring Valley eight years ago from Cedar City, Utah, to help his uncle run a hay farm.
When his uncle sold the place to the water authority in April 2007, Humphries suddenly found himself out of work.
Mulroy says Humphries seemed like the natural choice to look after the authority's livestock.
"It's not like we plucked somebody who has never done this before," she says. "We're going to the people who know how to do these things.
"The decisions on running those (ranches) are Brandon's."
Before he landed in Spring Valley, Humphries ran a landscaping company, a Mormon bookstore, and a side business that sold old railroad ties in Cedar City.
But cowboy life is in his blood.
When he was a kid, his family used to spend part of the year on a spread near Gunlock, Utah, where his grandfather kept 120 head of cattle and "we did everything by hand."
Humphries first climbed into the saddle at age 6, and within a year he was spending whole days on the range with his grandfather. He rode with blocks of wood taped to his stirrups so his legs would reach.
Today, the 36-year-old Humphries lives with his wife and five children in a house with a white rail fence and a sweeping view of Wheeler Peak from the front window.
"Basically, I went from operating a 600-acre farm for my uncle to operating a ranch with 1.2 million acres" of rangeland, he says. "It was quite a change."

Show 'em

On this day, Humphries and his branding crew get lucky. The clouds hold off until the last calf is done.
When the sky finally opens up around noon, what comes down is snow, a rarity for early June on the more-than-mile-high valley floor.
The weather is a mixed bag, Humphries says. It's good for the hay crop, but it also means two guys will have to go out on graders the next day to make sure the roads through the ranch are passable.
"In the ranch business in Spring Valley, what you deal with is too much water or not enough water," he says. "Both are occurring right now on the ranch."
Reaction to Humphries and his employer in White Pine County seems a little like that, too. It arrives in a trickle or a flood, some of it good, most of it bad.
Humphries predicts the anger and suspicion will fade over time, as "people come to realize we're here to be part of the community."
Until then, he knows only one surefire way to silence the critics: "Show 'em."
"That's what we do day by day," Humphries says. "We're under the microscope."

A new brand for a new ranch

When the Southern Nevada Water Authority bought the El Tejon ranch in White Pine County last May, the agency also acquired some livestock and an unusual problem.
Suddenly, the wholesale water supplier for the Las Vegas Valley needed its own cattle brand.
The design job fell to senior public information coordinator Lisa Riess and graphic artist Cathy Leece.
"It was absolutely the most unusual thing I have been asked to do," says Riess, an eight-year employee of the water authority.
Since neither of them knew the first thing about branding, they began by hitting the books.
What they discovered was a rich Nevada tradition dating back well over a century, one with its own complex set of rules and conventions.
It was a little like learning a new language, one Riess compares to Morse code or hieroglyphics, with letters and symbols that contain entire phrases if you know how to unlock them.
"This is not the typical brand you're used to in marketing," she says. "This was an entirely new subculture for us."
In other words, the authority could not simply burn a version of its water-droplet logo into the hides of its newly acquired cattle and sheep. Developing the brand had to be a "very careful, very deliberate" process, says Brandon Humphries, the authority's ranch manager in White Pine County.

Riess and Leece

knew going in that their design would have to be unique, so it wouldn't be confused with any other brand on file in Nevada. They didn't realize that would mean paging through the state's brand book, a 600-page tome crammed with about 4,000 different symbols.
"I would liken it to a copyright search," Riess says.
They also had to consider the landscape in which the livestock roam, since tradition dictates that a brand be "symbolic of the land it represents," Riess says.
Humphries had an additional requirement. He needed the brand to be easy to identify from a distance, but not so easy as to "rub it into people's faces" that the Southern Nevada Water Authority now owns livestock in the area. After all, Las Vegas water officials aren't exactly popular in White Pine County, what with their plans to export billions of gallons of groundwater from the area.
Finally, Riess and Leece had to consider the technical constraints of brand design, namely that the symbol they selected must be easily rendered in iron. And in the interest of being humane, they had to avoid the use of multiple symbols and enclosed spaces in their design that might cause painful "hot spots" in the finished brand.
The process took about nine months and involved dozens of drafts, including one that translated to "small fancy g."
Riess says the water authority's administrative team helped pick the final version, and the Nevada Department of Agriculture's Division of Livestock Identification gave its approval last October after a few weeks of review.
The authority's brand looks like an uppercase G with a waterfall tumbling out of it. And for good reason. The symbol literally translates to "falling water G."
The G stands for Great Basin Ranch, the name under which the water authority operates the more than 23,000 acres it has acquired in White Pine County's Spring Valley since 2006.
"A brand to us is a literal brand, but it still represents the company," Humphries explains.
The new brand was seared onto the right hip of about 1,500 calves in late May and June.
Asked how she feels about that, Riess says she has no moral objections to the practice of branding or cattle ranching in general. She used to be a vegetarian, but now she enjoys a good steak once in a while.
That's where she draws the line, though.
Riess says she has no interest in actually burning her "falling water G" onto the side of a live animal.
"I'll leave that to the professionals," she says.

Contact reporter Henry Brean at hbrean@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0350.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Hydrocarbons found in Wyo. stock well

Trace amounts of hydrocarbons have been found for the first time in a livestock water well bordering a natural gas drilling area in southwest Wyoming.

Officials say the concentrations of hydrocarbons found in the well were minuscule and posed no threat to human or animal health. But they were still concerned.

"We found this detection for hydrocarbons, which shouldn't be there, and we're trying to figure out how it got there and where it's coming from," Chuck Otto, director of the Bureau of Land Management's office in Pinedale, said Tuesday.

The stock well is just south of the town of Boulder, in Sublette County. The well is on the outside edge of the Pinedale Anticline, where gas drilling has been occurring, Otto said.

The BLM is close to issuing a final decision on a plan allowing oil and gas companies to drill some 4,400 more natural gas wells on the 200,000-acre Anticline.

Local residents opposed to the intense drilling have expressed concern about water and air pollution from the activity.

Linda Baker, community organizer for the Upper Green River Coalition, noted Tuesday that the discovery of pollution in the livestock water well follows the discovery of benzene in more than 80 industrial water supply wells in the area last year. Benzene is a hydrocarbon that can be harmful to human health.

"The problem is that if you're not in the town of Pinedale, anyone in the county gets their water from their own domestic water well," Baker said.

Baker said she regards the water pollution in the area as "a very dangerous situation that the BLM has not even begun to address as they consider approving 4,400 more wells."

The state hasn't determined the source of the hydrocarbons found in the livestock water well, but the nearby oil and gas drilling is a likely suspect, according to Mark Thiesse, hydrogeologist with the state Department of Environmental Quality.

However, Thiesse said subsequent tests have found barely measurable traces of the pollutant, making it difficult to identify a source definitively.

"We're certainly keeping an eye on it," Thiesse said. "And we're trying to figure out where these low levels are coming from, and we keep sampling a variety of wells just to try to get a feel for how widespread the problem is and is there really a health risk to humans or to critters or the environment out there. And so far we're not really finding any significant risk."

Some 250 water wells within a half mile of Anticline drilling must be tested routinely for any change in water quality, he said.

Most of the wells are on the drilling site and are used by the industry in their drilling operations. It's not unusual to find traces of hydrocarbons in such industrial wells.

The pollution found in the stock well was discovered in August, Otto said.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Wildflowers anchor watershed

Hilda Sexauer is a fisheries biologist.

But on this day, instead of wading streams and counting trout, she's following a ribbon of measuring tape across a field of wildflowers, inventorying plants, organic litter, barren soil and rock.

She's crouched in a meadow at 9,700 feet in the Wyoming Range, about 45 miles as the crow flies west of Pinedale. There's no fish -- or water for that matter -- in sight. Yet, this floral survey is all about water.

'Whatever happens in your headwaters is eventually going to go downstream,' says Sexauer, a Wyoming Game and Fish Department regional fisheries supervisor in Pinedale.

This high-elevation meadow is called a 'tall forb' community -- fields of wildflowers that grow between 6,300 and 11,000 feet in parts of Montana, Idaho, Utah and Colorado. The unique meadows culminate in wildflowers, not trees. According to experts, a healthy 'tall forb' meadow can stand thigh and even waist high. This particular meadow, though, is only tickling our shins.

But now a unique partnership between a rancher and some government and conservation groups has created an opportunity to give this high-elevation meadow a break from domestic sheep grazing in an attempt to accelerate its recovery. Ultimately, the plan is to return sheep grazing to the mix -' albeit at lighter frequencies than in the past.

Overgrazing hurts fragile plants

The benefits of restoration could be significant. Increasing organic matter by 5 percent on the ground can allow the meadows to hold seven times as much water per square foot, says retired Forest Service ecologist Alma Winward.

'That's what they were made for,' he says, explaining how the fluffy, black topsoil absorbs water like a sponge.

When functioning properly, the meadow captures moisture from rain and snowmelt and filters out sediment, thus preventing soil from washing down slope and, ultimately, downstream to cutthroat trout spawning beds. When too much sediment settles in the spawning gravel where native trout lay their eggs, the sediment suffocates the eggs and young fish fry.

On this late-summer day in the high country, Sexauer; Nellie Williams, Trout Unlimited's Wyoming coordinator, and habitat biologists from Game and Fish are here to survey plants. They will set up monitoring plots for the new Triple Peak Forage Reserve, which straddles the Snake River and Green River watersheds on the Bridger-Teton National Forest.

A multi-use paradise for hunters, anglers, hikers and horseback riders, the area also serves as spring, summer and fall range for mule deer and moose from the state's largest herds as well as bighorn sheep and elk. The forage reserve falls within a 1.2 million-acre chunk of the Wyoming Range, which U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., has proposed for withdrawal from oil and gas leasing.

Roughly four miles down the trail at the trailhead near Soda Lake sits a natural gas well with a fresh coat of green paint. But up in the high country it's wildflowers ' not wells ' that have everyone's attention.

In the early 1900s, ranchers ran an estimated 150,000 to 200,000 sheep from the south end of the Wyoming Range to the north and back again each summer, explains Steve Kilpatrick, a habitat biologist for Game and Fish.

'That was before we knew how fragile the tall forb communities are,' Kilpatrick says. 'Once it unravels it's just difficult to get it back.'

Historically, heavy grazing meant there was less plant material on the land to anchor the soil and soak up the rain. So the black, loamy topsoil washed away, leaving bare ground.

Those are the conditions Jim Magagna's family inherited when they started grazing sheep in the Wyoming Range in the 1940s. Moreover, concerns about predators encouraged ranchers to bed sheep at night in big numbers to protect the lambs and ewes from coyotes and other carnivores, Magagna says. Over time, however, Magagna acquired and consolidated nearly 60,000 acres of grazing leases on the national forest. By using guard dogs to protect the sheep from predators, he was able to spread them out to lighten their impact on the land, he says.

'That gave me an opportunity to do some things that weren't possible historically when there were a lot more sheep in the area,' Magagna says. 'I feel personally that over the average of 30-some years that I had those allotments, that I was able to significantly improve them.'

Even so, studies show that these fragile meadows can take as long as 75 years to return to the fully functioning plant communities they were prior to turn-of-the-century grazing.

With that in mind, Trout Unlimited brokered a deal with Magagna to give the high-elevation meadows time to heal. Under the agreement, Magagna waived his option to graze four bands of sheep yearly on nearly 60,000 acres in exchange for $209,904 in compensation. The payment comes from a variety of contributors including fishing, hunting and conservation groups.

Magagna said he wanted to downsize his ranching operation to dedicate more time to other activities. A politically active representative of agricultural interests, Magagna serves as executive vice president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association. He first offered the grazing leases to fellow sheep ranchers in eastern Idaho and western Wyoming and received interest from one Idaho rancher, who later decided not to take it, he said.

Working with Trout Unlimited on the forage reserve concept allowed him to give up the leases while keeping ranching in the picture, he says.

'I was not willing to dispose of them and see them closed,' he says. 'I didn't agree to this until I felt that we had come up with a system that I thought was both positive to the resource, but also provided some benefits to the sheep industry.'

Under the agreement, nearly 54,000 acres have been set aside for the forage reserve. This marked the first year the reserve was open for emergency grazing on roughly 60 percent of the acreage ' for ranchers displaced by wildfires or habitat enhancement projects. No ranchers applied to use it this year. The agreement allows ranchers to graze the land for up to three out of every 10 years.

Meadows service wildlife populations

A small portion of the allotment -- 5,115 acres -- has been closed to grazing to protect spawning gravel used by cutthroat trout at North Piney Lake and creeks that drain into it. The lake contains a genetically pure population of Colorado River cutthroat trout. The state collects native trout from the lake to produce eggs for the Daniel fish hatchery, which raises the native trout. The hatchery fish are then used to restore Colorado River cutthroats to streams throughout the Green River basin. The grazing closure aims to safeguard the clean gravel along the lakeshore where the cutthroat lay their eggs.

Both the Colorado River and Snake River cutthroat trout, which occupy the two watersheds covered by the new forage reserve, have been petitioned for listing as threatened species. Although those petitions have been denied, Trout Unlimited's Williams says proactive efforts to keep sediment out of streams could help prevent a future listing.

In addition to the cutthroat conservation area, another chunk of the 54,000 acres ' about 40 percent ' is off limits to sheep grazing for now. The agreement calls for restoring those lands to 80 percent ground cover and a healthy mix of plants before reopening it to domestic sheep. The area encompasses the wildflower meadows above 9,700 feet.

This summer, biologists set up study plots in order to monitor the land in the absence of grazing. Game and Fish has hired Winward to help establish and oversee the monitoring. Winward has been studying tall forb communities for decades. While these meadows can typically withstand light, once-over grazing, he says, that's not always the case.

'If it gets taken down too far ' it can't recover,' he said. That's when the land needs a rest from grazing, he says.

The wildflowers' ability to anchor moisture in the mountains has long been known, he says. Overgrazing at the turn of the 20th century caused flooding that washed out towns and roads, he says. Yet, it's taken decades to get a handle on how to manage these fragile systems.

'Nobody really took time to realize all the values they served and to really know what they looked like,' Winward said. 'Most of them were disturbed at various degrees of severity from 1885 to 1915.'

In addition to benefiting cutthroat, the meadows provide other services for wildlife. For example, research indicates that mule deer feeding on healthy wildflowers put on more fat, have higher pregnancy rates, give birth to bigger fawns and produce more milk for their young, Kilpatrick says. The Triple Peak Forage Reserve encompasses birthing areas for mule deer.

Kilpatrick says mule deer summering in the Wyoming Range are facing habitat challenges on their winter range, with drilling under way on the Pinedale Anticline.

'If we can beef up these animals before they hit winter range, they'll have a better survival rate,' he says.

These high-elevation monitoring plots have a long way to go, but once they demonstrate 80 percent ground cover, with a healthy mix of flowers, domestic sheep can return to this high country. Like the rest of the allotment, the land will provide alternative pasture for ranchers who need to give their own forest allotment a rest ' for reasons such as recovery from wildfire or habitat restoration.

'It gives us flexibility to do (habitat) treatments in surrounding allotments,' Kilpatrick says. It's 'another tool,' he says, for ranchers and land managers to use as they try to balance the needs of wildlife and livestock.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Judge rules for government in falcon dispute

A federal judge has rejected the final part of a challenge by environmental groups to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decision to designate the northern aplomado falcon as a nonessential, experimental population in New Mexico and Arizona.

The environmentalists alleged the designation violated federal policy and stripped the falcon of needed protections under the Endangered Species Act. They wanted U.S. District Judge William Johnson to declare the designation illegal and force the Fish and Wildlife Service to respond to their petition for critical habitat in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.

Johnson's legal opinion Tuesday upheld the federal agency's determination that there was no native population of falcons in New Mexico before a 2006 program to release them in the state.

The program has released about 120 birds since its inception.

The judge rejected the environmentalists' contention that New Mexico fell within the species' current range and that New Mexico's population was not "wholly separate geographically" from nonexperimental populations across northern Mexico or those released in West Texas.

He said Fish and Wildlife's interpretation did not conflict with the Endangered Species Act.

"The court supported us on everything," said Elizabeth Slown, a spokeswoman for Fish and Wildlife in Albuquerque. That means the reintroduction program can continue, she said.

Even though the government and environmental groups were in court, they were fighting for the same goal — the recovery of the northern aplomado falcon, Slown said.

"Our disagreement was with how we were going to recover it," she said. "We're pleased that the court supported us all the way."

Environmentalists are disappointed by the judge's ruling, said Nicole Rosmarino, wildlife program director for WildEarth Guardians, one of several groups that sued over the falcon two years ago. WildEarth Guardians has not decided whether to appeal, she said.

"We think there was overwhelming evidence of wild falcons in this state, and those wild falcons were denied protections by the Fish and Wildlife Service and now by Judge Johnson," Rosmarino said.

Slown said nonessential populations still are protected by the Endangered Species Act. Fish and Wildlife uses the designation in returning a species to its former habitat because that gives the agency "flexibility on how we're going to do it," she said.

The environmental groups sued the Fish and Wildlife Service and The Peregrine Fund in 2006, the year the federal agency designated the falcons an experimental population in New Mexico and Arizona. The designation cleared the way for The Peregrine Fund to begin releasing captive-bred falcons in southern New Mexico.

Environmentalists argued that reintroduced animals can be designated experimental only if they're outside a species' current range. They contended New Mexico already had aplomado falcons because there were more than two dozen sightings in the two years before the first 11 birds were released in August 2006 under reintroduction.

Government attorneys, however, argued that sporadic sightings in New Mexico didn't mean there was a breeding population.

In late May, Johnson denied environmentalists' claims that the agency violated the Endangered Species Act by not responding to their petition within a set period and that it did not rely on the best science in designating the New Mexico and Arizona populations as experimental.

However, he agreed with the environmentalists' argument that Fish and Wildlife unreasonably delayed action on critical habitat for the bird in Texas. He stressed his decision meant only that Fish and Wildlife had to answer the groups' petition within 30 days.

Rosmarino said the agency has since told WildEarth Guardians it does not plan to designate critical habitat in Texas. She said the group was considering appealing that decision because of degradation of important falcon habitat at national wildlife refuges in that state.
Study: Grazing not a factor in Murphy blaze
Agencies should investigate grazing as fire tool, report says

Restrictions on cattle grazing in the Jarbidge area didn't really contribute to the massive, 600,000-acre Murphy Complex Fire in 2007, states a new report compiled by a team from the Bureau of Land Management, University of Idaho and other state and federal researchers.

The study found that any effect grazing, or the lack of it, had on the fire was far overshadowed by the extreme temperatures and other weather factors at the time. But targeted grazing could have the potential to affect fire behavior in "less intense" conditions, the authors state, and should be investigated further as another fire management tool.

The peer-reviewed study was released last week after an Aug. 28 presentation for the BLM and the other agencies that contributed, said Heather Feeney, state BLM spokeswoman. It's now posted on a University of Idaho Web site for anyone to read.

The authors also call for more-refined fire models to be developed for rangeland fires. The models most commonly used were developed for forests, which burn differently, Feeney said. But that does not mean the grazing study is not accurate, she said, citing the peer review as assurance that the science was vetted.

The presentation was also attended by a few outside groups who asked to participate, including representatives of the Western Watersheds Project, an environmental group that has opposed ranchers' push for expandedgrazing. In a release put out Tuesday, the group appeared delighted to note members of the study team were "flummoxed" by their own findings.

"They couldn't show that levels of grazing made any real difference in reducing the impacts of the Murphy Complex wildfire," said Katie Fite, WWP's biodiversity director, "but it looks as if BLM and the public lands ranchers are still trying to promote increased grazing disturbance and turn our public lands into dust bowls."

That assertion is completely wrong, Feeney said, pointing to repeated recommendations in the study against large-scale grazing as one example. The BLM simply wants to add to its repertoire of ways to prevent intense fires.

"I don't think there's anyone who would say that there's no need for having as many tools as possible for fuels management," she said.

State Sen. Bert Brackett, R-Rogerson, is a rancher and one of the more vocal critics who called for a change in grazing practices after the Murphy fire. After a first cursory read of the study on Thursday, he said he was encouraged by the suggestion to look further into grazing as a fire management option.

"If that could happen, it's to the benefit of all the other (public lands) uses out there," he said. "Again, they need to use all the tools in the toolbox, if you will."

He also noted the study team's description of the Murphy fire as a "perfect storm." Fire officials on the East Slide Rock Ridge Fire currently burning in the Jarbidge Wilderness have used similar terms for their fire, Brackett said, and he questioned how unique the "phenomena" are if they've happened for a few years in a row now.

"If they keep happening, then there's maybe more there," he said.

BLM officials are eager to use the study as a starting point for more research, Feeney said, cooperating with state and other federal agencies to do so. The next step will be a technical report gathering all existing data on grazing as a fire tool, she said. Scientists will move over the next couple of years to organize and begin a pilot project or two to test the effect of grazing, including an environmental analysis of any test ground before a project begins, she said.

Nate Poppino may be reached at 208-735-3237 or npoppino@magicvalley.com.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Feds in the Fishbowl
Whatever floats your boat

Under the Clean Water Act of 1972, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers are granted jurisdiction over the “navigable waters” of the United States. If a boat can float on it, it’s theirs to regulate. Over the years, the definition of “navigable waters” overflowed its banks, expanding to include virtually anywhere with detectable levels of H2O.

“What began as a reasonable attempt to control water pollution in our nation’s interstate rivers, lakes, and streams,” says Peyton Knight at the National Center for Public Policy Research, “spiraled into unreasonable federal regulation of isolated wetlands, ponds, dry lakebeds, intermittent streams and drainage ditches.” As time went on, landowners were required to obtain permits for everything from draining a field for plowing to building a dock to filling in a low wet spot.

In 2006 the U.S. Supreme Court issued a muddled opinion in Rapanos v. United States that reined in some of the more exotic interpretations of “navigable waters.” Now Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.) and Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) have introduced the Clean Water Restoration Act, which would replace the phrase “navigable waters” with “waters of the United States,” by which they mean “all waters subject to the ebb and flow of the tide, the territorial seas, and all interstate and intrastate waters and their tributaries, including lakes, rivers, streams (including intermittent streams), mudflats, sandflats, wetlands, sloughs, prairie potholes, wet meadows, playa lakes, natural ponds, and all impoundments of the foregoing.”

If the bill passes, it will create new regulatory barriers for fishermen, boaters, hunters, and even some conservationists, who may find that their favorite hobbies no longer pass muster. The act leaves it up to the courts to decide if “waters of the United States” also includes your kitchen sink.