Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Sabinoso Wilderness signed into law — in addition to 11 more N.M. specific provisions in wilderness bill

After a long process, an omnibus wilderness bill that includes a provision to designate more than 16,000 acres of wilderness in New Mexico was finally signed into law by President Barack Obama today in the East Room of the White House.

There are many other parts of the bill that affect New Mexico.

Both senators and all three representatives from New Mexico attended the signing ceremony. Jeff Bingaman sponsored the original Omnibus Public Lands Management Act of 2009 and Tom Udall originally wrote the Sabinoso Wilderness Act while in the House. President Joe Shirley of the Navajo Nation also attended the signing, and got a mention from the president.

The bill designates more than 2 million acres of land as wilderness. “Almost as much as was designated over the past eight years combined,” Obama declared.

“Giving this area wilderness status will allow us to showcase and protect another beautiful part New Mexico,” Bingaman said in a statement.

Of the newly designated Sabinoso Wilderness, Udall said, “The preservation of this incredible landscape will now remain for the permanent benefit and enjoyment of current and future generations.”

The new wilderness area will now be open for grazing, hunting and other recreational uses.

Rep. Ben Ray Luján, who replaced Udall when Udall left the House, said, “By protecting and enhancing the natural and cultural resources which are integral to the identity of New Mexico and America, this bill ensures the prolonged existence and availability of forest lands and natural resources for future generations.”

Rep. Harry Teague said, “From the Snowy River Cave in Lincoln County to the prehistoric trackways in the Robledo Mountains in Doña Ana this package of bills provides important protections for some of the natural treasures we have throughout southern New Mexico.”

Rep Martin Heinrich said, “In the West, we know the value of water and the value of the places where we hunt, fish and recreate with our families.”

In addition to the Sabinoso Wilderness Act, there are 11 separate provisions relating to New Mexico in the bill, including the Rio Grande Pueblos Irrigation Infrastructure Improvement Act, the Eastern New Mexico Rural Water System Authorization Act, the Navajo-San Juan Indian Water Rights Settlement, the New Mexico Aquifer Assessment Act.

Udall said that he did not do this alone, saying, “The Sabinoso Wilderness is the product of years of work by the entire community, including local leaders, sportsmen, land owners and ranchers.”

Monday, March 30, 2009

National Wildlife Federation: Grazing Buyouts

Innovative Retirement Planning for Cows and Sheep

A new conservation model that minimizes litigation, sustains agriculture, and concentrates livestock grazing on public or private land where it has less impact.

Nowadays, many of us are re-thinking our retirement plan after giving away half our nest egg to people on Wall Street who don’t need it, but we should remember that the concept of retirement isn’t all about us. Those poor dumb animals need it, too, and at least one man is there for them, doing what he can to retire thousands of cows and sheep to greener pastures.

And it’s about time Hank Fischer received a little credit for it. As you’ll see, he’s obviously doing a lot better than most of us are with our retirement planning.

Hank Fischer manages a special program called Wildlife Conflict Resolution for the National Wildlife Federation (NWF). In English, that means he negotiates with ranchers to sell or “retire” public land grazing allotments to minimize conflicts between wildlife and domestic livestock.

Since the early 1900s, western stockgrowers have leased public land for livestock grazing. These grazing permits or “allotments” have grown in value through time and have essentially become false equity for ranchers. They’re used for collateral in bank loans, and you’ve seen the real estate ads selling ranches touting figures like: “5000 deeded and 10,000 leased acres.” The private landowner isn’t actually selling those “leased acres,” usually federal land managed by the Forest Service (FS) or Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Instead, he/she is selling or transferring the right to exclusively run cows or sheep on certain sections of public land.

Such transactions have, in essence, created an after-market for these grazing allotments, and the NWF has become a player in buying, selling and trading them as a way to solve chronic conflicts between livestock and controversial wild animals like bears, wolves and bison.

“At first, it was all about the conflict with bears and wolves,” Fischer told NewWest.Net. “Now we’re seeing we can also address the conflict between bison and cattle as it relates to the brucellosis problem.”

And the success has been sweet. To date, Fischer and his NWF comrades have raised more than $2,000,000 of mostly private money and retired 31 grazing allotments totaling 530,000 acres of conflict-ridden public pasture. That’s a land area roughly the size of Grand Teton National Park or about 10 percent of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Three of those retirements have been in designated wilderness areas. (See map. Click on image for larger version.)

Almost half of $2,000,000 has been raised to retire a 6,000-acre section of the controversial Royal Teton Ranch just north of Yellowstone National Park from livestock grazing, mainly to address a serious dispute with bison migrating out of the park. Fischer predicts he’ll close that deal, his first involving private land, by the end of the year.

“This program offers something for both livestock producers and wildlife,” he explains. “That’s why it works. We can bank on it working in any place where there’s a chronic conflict between wildlife and livestock.”

So far, all of Fischer’s efforts have been in the Greater Yellowstone Area, but he has recently started working on conflicts in other areas. It’s too soon to publicize any specific deals; like any real estate transaction, wildlife conflict resolutions require privacy until closed.

It’s mainly the selling price that counts, of course. It always is, and Fischer says the livestock producer always gets a fair deal for the allotment and in a few cases have gotten “a small premium” compared to appraised value.

Seems like a motherhood and apple pie program? Not quite. Critics have accused the program of secretly trying to remove all the livestock grazing from public lands, a claim Fischer disputes.

“We’re not trying to get rid of livestock grazing,” he counters. “It’s completely voluntary. There is no reason the livestock producer has to do this, but we’ve always found livestock producers willing to work with us.”

In fact, Fischer notes, in most cases ranchers use the money to purchase replacement grazing, public or private. Sometimes he even finds and purchases another public land grazing allotment and trades it for the problem allotment. It’s more like “re-distributing” the grazing, he notes.

“A market approach,” Fischer emphasizes, “can turn opponents into partners.”

To seal any deals on public land, the managing agency (FS or BLM usually) must agree to permanently retire the allotment instead of simply letting another rancher run cows or sheep on it--and perpetuate the problem. This has been a bigger problem for Fischer than getting cooperation from livestock producers, and a few deals with willing sellers have fallen apart because the agency wouldn’t agree to retire the allotment.

Another reason the program works, according to Fischer, is the support it receives from “a wide spectrum of the environmental community,” which the two of us agreed is something we don’t see enough of nowadays. Witness bitter disputes between green groups over issues like wilderness preservation and wolf delisting.

When he signed on for this challenge, Fischer ranked allotments from worst to best as far as seriousness of wildlife conflicts. “We’ve already retired the top five (translate, worst five) allotments,” he boasts, justly, “and with very little controversy.”

Looking at this issue practically, dealing with wildlife conflicts is hardly happiness for ranchers, so why wouldn’t they want to get out from under a chronic conflict and move to grazing lands with fewer clashes with wildlife?

From my perspective, here’s another example of how to do it. Cooperation almost always wins out over polarization. Now, can we get the same concept to work for issues like gun rights, wolf delisting and wilderness preservation?

Friday, March 27, 2009

Unlikely partners savor victory, but work's not done to protect Owyhee Canyonlands

Environmental groups and Owyhee County ranchers went from bitter enemies to friends and partners in their ambitious effort to preserve the awesome scenery of the Owyhee Canyonlands; miles of habitat for wild sheep, imperiled sage grouse and rare redband trout; and the cultural treasures of both cowboys and Indians.

But they're also looking ahead to the work to complete a hard-fought compromise that was included as one small measure in a sweeping public lands bill sent to President Obama on Wednesday. The bill could become law as soon as Monday.

The ranchers overcame their traditional opposition to wilderness and wild rivers restrictions to help conservative Republican Sen. Mike Crapo pass Idaho's first wilderness bill since 1980.

Now the burden shifts to environmentalists, who have to follow through on promises to find the money needed to keep ranchers whole as the region transforms.

They agreed to help raise at least $10 million in private money and convince a Democratic administration to back $15 million more in tax dollars to help pay for the land transfers, grazing buyouts and other accommodations for ranchers who now live and work in the area.

"That's where the hard work is going to come," said Brenda Richards, an Owyhee County rancher who was part of the collaborative collective that crafted the agreement.

"We had the same caliber of people who wrote the Constitution," said Fred Grant, the private property rights activist who prodded the county to start the process and then headed the group.

Environmental groups were just as proud Wednesday. For them, the battle started when the Air Force sought to build a bombing range over wildlands including Dickshooter's Ridge, Battle Creek and the forks of the Owyhee River.

"Sierra Club has worked for nearly 30 years to protect this spectacular desert landscape," said Jessica Ruehrwein, Sierra Club regional representative in Boise. "It is truly a historic day."

The groups restated their commitments made to local residents.

"The ranchers should be looking for us to make sure we get all these pieces together," said Craig Gehrke, the Idaho representative for the Wilderness Society who sat on the panel. "The solicitation of the private money and the federal appropriations are going to be a tough task, but we're going to do it."

The Shoshone-Paiute Tribes will get some of the federal money to protect cultural treasures spread out across an area that is Idaho's cross between Utah's canyonlands and Kenya's Serengeti Plain.

About $8 million is authorized for buying private lands in and around wilderness areas. But the $10 million from private sources, including foundations, would buy easements and water rights and pay ranchers to retire grazing permits.

Crapo said the "hard-fought, long-negotiated" settlement "will be an enduring testament to the power and potential of collaboration." He said he would make sure the promises are kept and that federal agencies follow through.

Democrats in the Senate required that Crapo take out the intricate deals needed to get each affected rancher in the county on board. And those changes made even Jon Marvel, executive director of the Western Watersheds Project, all but drop his objections to the bill.

"The Owyhee Initiative actually is beneficial for our point of view as currently written," said Marvel, whose group helped spur the collaboration with anti-grazing lawsuits.

The listing of sage grouse as an endangered species, which Marvel expects another lawsuit to force, will overwhelm the benefits to ranchers in the bill, said Marvel, who was excluded from the initiative and says eliminating public lands grazing is one of his goals.

But Grant said a University of Idaho scientific review center established by the bill - and an independent grazing review process - will help ranchers find ways to protect sage grouse and continue grazing. The Wilderness Society's Gehrke agreed.

"The goal ... has always been to take a big-picture view of the sagebrush steppe issues," Gehrke said. "I'm not sure anyone has done that in Owyhee County."

Jordan Valley rancher Mike Hanley, who long supported the bill, said ranchers weren't looking for guarantees or even a hand up.

"All we ask is that we get a fair shot and it goes through a scientific process," Hanley said.

The omnibus lands bill that included 170 other public land bills passed 285-140 with the support of Idaho Republican Rep. Mike Simpson and Democratic Rep. Walt Minnick. Minnick told the House he floated a remote upper stretch of the river last year.

He praised Crapo for his efforts "to preserve our cherished Owyhees."

Rocky Barker: 377-6484

Thursday, March 26, 2009

For local cattle grazers, bill may bring painful transition

Wednesday was bittersweet for rancher Bob Miller, whose family has been running cattle for more than a century on what is now the 53,837-acre Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument southeast of Ashland.

He is one of five major lessees whose cattle grazing will end on the monument after the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 becomes law. Passed by the U.S. Senate last week, it was overwhelmingly approved by the House on Wednesday and is expected to be signed soon by President Obama.

"It's a relief to get the thing over," said Miller, 68, of Hornbrook, Calif. "We went through the crying stages long ago. This is a major step in what has been a long, rocky road."

He and other ranchers have been working with conservationists to come up with an agreement that would allow conservationists to pay the ranchers to retire their grazing leases. The act includes language that makes the grazing retirement possible. The buyout will include no funding from Uncle Sam.

"This is not what we wanted, but it's better than nothing," said Miller, who added he would have preferred to continue the lifestyle his family has long followed.

The amount being paid to the lessees has not been disclosed.

"Nobody is getting enough to start over again," he said. "It's like selling your house for 20 cents on the dollar. You can't replace it."

But health reasons, coupled with poor market conditions and growing opposition to grazing on public lands, persuaded him to make the difficult decision, he said.

"It's hard," he said. "I'm the fourth generation — for over 100 years my family has been running cattle up there."

The language in the act provides for permanent and voluntary retirement of public lands cattle grazing leases by private buyout on up to 106,672 acres of federal land in and around the monument. The monument is in the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's Medford District.

The five lessees represent about 94 percent of the cattle grazing permitted on the monument.

U.S. House passes massive wilderness bill

The U.S. House passed a conservation plan that will protect 2 million acres of natural wilderness and preserve monuments, trails and rivers across the country.

The Omnibus Public Lands Management Act, approved today 285-140, goes to President Barack Obama for his signature. The measure combines more than 160 environmental bills in 1,294 pages to conserve water and protect 1,000 miles of scenic rivers. It would block mining and drilling on millions of acres of land.

“This legislation is good for the land, and good for our children and our grandchildren,” said Representative Raul Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat. The bill cleared the Senate last week.

The measure authorizes up to $10 billion in spending for wildlife and land protection. It would add 2 million acres, or about 800,000 hectares, in nine states to the National Wilderness Preservation System. That system currently consists of 10 million acres, or about 4 million hectares, in 44 states.

The measure is the culmination of years of effort by conservationists, sportsmen and localities to protect large and small swaths of land across the country.

Plan Opponents

Opponents of the plan said it had not been properly vetted for wasteful spending and that it would block access to tens of millions of acres of natural gas and oil reserves.

Representative Tom McClintock, a California Republican, called the bill a “massive land grab.” On the House floor, he said the public good is not served by “mindless and endless acquisition of property” that blocks access to natural gas and other resources.

Public land in Oregon, New Mexico, Colorado, California, Idaho, West Virginia, Virginia, Utah and Michigan will get the new wilderness protection. The legislation also will safeguard rivers in Oregon, Idaho, Arizona, Wyoming, Utah, California and Massachusetts.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said the 2 million wilderness acres that will be off-limits to oil and gas drilling won’t hamper domestic energy production.

“Those who argue that putting these kinds of lands into wilderness status is somehow pulling the rug out from under the oil and gas industry are flat wrong, because there are already millions upon millions of acres” open for drilling, Salazar told reporters after the vote.

‘Important’ Legislation

The measure “is the most important piece of conservation legislation Congress has considered in many years,” said Representative Nick Rahall, a West Virginia Democrat who is chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources.

“Passage of this bill is an expression of the home-grown support for one of the largest environmental protection measures in decades,” said Rebecca Wodder, president of American Rivers, an environmental group.

The legislation includes language from Representative Jason Altmire, a Pennsylvania Democrat, to allay concerns by sportsmen and gun-rights lobbyists that it might block hunting on federal land.

The House rejected an amendment from Representative Doc Hastings, a Washington Republican, to allow people to carry concealed weapons into national parks. The provision would have reversed an Interior Department firearms policy.


New Mexico Rep's Heinrich, Lujan & Teague all voted YES on final passage.

Here are the statements of Heinrich & Lujan - Teague's website had no statement.

Rep. Heinrich Votes for Essential Public Lands Bill That Passes House

Representative Martin Heinrich (NM-01) today voted in favor of the Omnibus Public Land Management Act which passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 285-140. The legislation includes more than 160 separate provisions that will protect our national parks and forests, preserve historic places and invest in water infrastructure.

A strong advocate for this legislation, Representative Heinrich went to the House floor today to speak in favor of the bill and to highlight some of the positive effects it will have on the First Congressional District. The following are experts from Representative Heinrich’s floor statement:

“The Rio Grande has been the lifeblood of our community for thousands of years, and for the Pueblo of Sandia this bill will make possible much-needed investments in their water infrastructure and vital agricultural irrigation systems.

“And from east to west, this bill will reauthorize the Route 66 Corridor Program which is essential to preserving the historical character and vibrancy of our beloved Central Avenue.”

Representative Heinrich’s floor statement may be viewed in its entirety at: http://www.majorityleader.gov/multimedia/CSPAN_03-25-2009_13.16.42.wmv

The bill contains 12 separate provisions that help preserve New Mexico’s natural resources and specifically ensures access to public lands for hunters and fishermen. Of importance to New Mexico, this legislation protects the Sabinoso Wilderness, invests in irrigation infrastructure for pueblos in the Rio Grande Valley, and authorizes a comprehensive study of New Mexico’s groundwater resources.

The legislation now goes to President Obama for his signature.

Rep. Lujan Votes in Favor of Land Bill

Today, Rep. Ben Ray Luján voted in favor of the Omnibus Land Management Act of 2009, which will conserve thousands of acres of land for future generations and make water resources available to previously underserved communities. Five bills that Rep. Luján introduced were included in the package—including four pieces of legislation that address water availability (Rio Grande Pueblos Irrigation Infrastructure Improvement Act, the Eastern New Mexico Rural Water System Authorization Act, the Navajo-San Juan Indian Water Rights Settlement, and the New Mexico Aquifer Assessment Act) and one piece of legislation that preserves valuable wilderness 40 miles east of Las Vegas, New Mexico (the Sabinoso Wilderness Act). The legislation passed the House by a vote of 285 to 140. The legislation will now go to President Barack Obama’s desk.

“New Mexico’s natural beauty marked by scenic vistas and natural forests is what makes our state beautiful and unique. Today, Congress made an historic statement to protect our beautiful landscapes and the natural resources contained within them by passing the Omnibus Public Land Management Act,” said Rep. Luján. “By passing the Land bill, the House made a commitment to conserving treasured land for the next generation and making water resources available to communities that need it.”

Rep. Luján introduced five pieces of legislation included in the Omnibus Bill. Those measures were originally introduced several years ago by Sen. Jeff Bingaman in the Senate and then-Rep. Tom Udall in the House. As chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Sen. Bingaman authored the Omnibus Bill and shepherded it through the Senate.

"Water availability is a critical issue in New Mexico, and these pieces of legislation will provide many communities with stable access to water," said Rep. Luján. "Communities in New Mexico need access to this precious resource, and this legislation will help alleviate the problems they face with water availability and allocation."

The Rio Grande Pueblos Irrigation Infrastructure Improvement Act would allocate federal resources to Indian tribes in New Mexico to assess and repair irrigation infrastructure in order to help conserve water resources in the area.

The Eastern New Mexico Rural Water System Authorization Act would authorize the Secretary of the Interior to provide financial assistance to the Eastern New Mexico Rural Water Authority for the planning, design, and construction of the Eastern New Mexico Rural Water System.

The Navajo-San Juan Indian Water Rights Settlement would resolve a water dispute that began in 1975 between the state of New Mexico and the Navajo Nation over the resources in the San Juan River. In 2005, a settlement was reached between the state of New Mexico and the Navajo Nation that resolved this dispute. However, it cannot be implemented without legislation that most notably authorizes a series of water infrastructure projects--including creating a water settlement and providing for funds for water resources. The passage of this legislation would resolve the Navajo Nation's claims to the San Juan River, provide the Tribe with an important and long-term water supply, and protect the interests of non-Indian water users in the basin.

The New Mexico Aquifer Assessment Act would authorize the Secretary of Interior to conduct a study on the water resources of New Mexico.

Rep. Luján also introduced the Sabinoso Wilderness Act that would designate approximately 16,000 wilderness acres located 40 milies east of Las Vegas, New Mexico. The land includes a unique and diverse ecosystem that contains vast woodlands and rocky canyons, as well as thriving wildlife and vegetation.

"New Mexico is known as the Land of Enchantment because of our people, beautiful landscapes, clear skies, and fresh air," said Rep. Luján. "The Sabinoso Wilderness embodies the value and beauty of our land. The ecosystem that represents the wilderness is unique to the region and supports diverse wildlife and vegetation—which is why the Sabinoso Wilderness Act is supported by hunters, ranchers, conservationists, and residents who want to preserve the land for future generations. The language will preserve valuable and treasured land, providing the next generation with the opportunity to enjoy it.”

Monday, March 23, 2009

Group pushes for more Gila wilderness, grazing buyout

The Gila National Forest in southwestern New Mexico is where famed naturalist Aldo Leopold first hatched the idea of setting aside the nation's untamed lands as wilderness.

Nearly 85 years ago, he helped carve the world's first designated wilderness out of the Gila.

Now, conservationists want the federal government to protect more land in the region, saying the diversity and remote roadless landscapes that straddle New Mexico and Arizona are on par with the country's top natural gems.

"It's because the wildlife and the wild landscapes down there are so exemplary that we think we have the Yellowstone of the Southwest," said Bryan Bird, public lands director for WildEarth Guardians.

The group released a report this month on what Bird calls a "novel" and "surgical" approach to protecting the greater Gila region, which includes parts of three national forests, a handful of wilderness areas and hundreds of thousands of acres managed by state and federal agencies.

The report recommends that roadless areas radiating from the Gila River and its headwaters be added to the nation's wilderness preservation system and that Congress authorize a voluntary grazing permit retirement program to elevate conflicts between the needs of ranchers and wildlife, namely the endangered Mexican gray wolf.

The area's old growth forests and iconic species are being threatened by the West's booming population, livestock grazing, mining and off-road vehicle recreation, Bird said.

"We think it's so important both ecologically and economically that it needs a new approach," he said.

But turning public land into wilderness takes an act of Congress, and that's no ease task.

Only the Wild Sky Wilderness in Washington state's Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest was designated last year, and conservationists say that proposal took several years to work through Capitol Hill.

The U.S. House is considering — for the second time — a massive public land package that would protect millions of acres in nine states. The measure has already been passed twice by the Senate and fell victim to parliamentary procedures during its first round in the House.

The other hurdle is that many ranchers aren't willing to retire their grazing rights and give up their livelihoods, said Caren Cowan, executive director of New Mexico Cattle Growers' Association.

"There are communities there, there are families there, there are businesses there," she said of the Gila region. "... I think they're just trying to perpetuate a myth that there's this great big pristine world that's untouched, and it's simply not true."

Cowan said the U.S. Forest Service has a mandate to manage lands like the Gila and neighboring Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona for multiple uses and that includes ranching.

She also questioned the timing of the proposal given the nation's economic woes.

"The idea that the government would have money to pay people not to produce and not work just seems ludicrous," she said. "Being able to produce things like food, minerals, timber and fiber are going to be what puts this country back on its feet."

Forest officials have seen the report, and say any designation of wilderness or the development of a grazing permit retirement program would have to be the wish of Congress.

Still, they agree with the report's characterization of the region as "majestic."

So do other outdoor enthusiasts.

"It's the marquee place," said The Wilderness Society's Michael Carroll, a Colorado resident who is fresh off a trip to the Gila. "It's hard to believe when you are down there that we have such a treasure that's tucked away there in southwestern New Mexico."

From a historical perspective, Carroll said the area is significant because of its connection to Leopold and the birth of the wilderness movement.

In 1924, Leopold urged his bosses at the U.S. Forest Service to seek protection for more than a half-million acres of roadless land within the forest and the Gila Wilderness was born.

It's also special because of its biological diversity and large swaths of untouched land.

"Because of these two assets, the bioregion is one of the increasingly rare landscapes in the American West where we can restore and save all the ecological parts," states the WildEarth Guardians report.

Bird said WildEarth Guardians wants to look strategically at grazing allotments in wolf territory or roadless areas. "This isn't just a blanket, one-size fits all approach," he said.

He also argued that protecting more wilderness would be a boon for property values, tourism and hunting and fishing.

The challenge, Carroll said, is protecting the land while still allowing people to use and enjoy it. He said wilderness protection has become more complicated than drawing lines on a map.

"It's about protecting the community and the way of life, looking really at the entire landscape around an area like the Gila and saying you can't divorce people from the landscape," Carroll said. "They are part of the landscape just as the landscape is part of them. It's what makes up the character of places like this."

Friday, March 20, 2009

Wyoming Gov. Freudenthal vetoes rangeland monitoring bill

Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal has vetoed a bill that aimed to protect ranchers who use public lands for grazing by providing state funding for environmental assessments of rangelands.

CHEYENNE, Wyo. — Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal has vetoed a bill that aimed to protect ranchers who use public lands for grazing by providing state funding for environmental assessments of rangelands.

House Bill 213 would have provided $300,000 in grants to conservation districts, allowing them to conduct more rangeland monitoring. The monitoring helps federal agencies make decisions on renewal of public land grazing permits.

Bill supporters said federal land agencies are too backlogged to keep up with necessary monitoring. But law requires the agencies to issue grazing permits anyway. The bill's backers said this has allowed environmental groups to oppose grazing leases in court over procedural points.

In his veto explanation Wednesday, Freudenthal said the state budget is too tight to take on rangeland monitoring responsibilities currently overseen by federal land agencies and permit holders.

"For the permittee or federal land manager to ask for help is one thing — for us to step into their shoes is quite another," Freudenthal said in a letter to Secretary of State Max Maxfield.

Freudenthal also said the bill lacked consensus among conservation districts and permit holders.

Bobbie Frank, executive director of the Wyoming Association of Conservation Districts, said about 30 of Wyoming's 34 conservation districts supported the bill. He said they already participate in rangeland monitoring to the extent their budgets allow.

She said those districts that were uncomfortable with the proposed state program would not have been required to participate.

"For those districts that did have concerns, it wasn't a mandate — it was an option," Frank said.

Freudenthal acknowledged that the state has an interest in protecting public land grazing, but said the bill was the wrong vehicle.

Jim Magagna, executive vice president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, said the governor's objections were "shortsighted."

Magagna said the Bureau of Land Management will face about 700 permit renewal requests over the next five years that require environmental analysis. The overwhelming number of mineral permits can push grazing permits to the bottom of the pile, he said.

Freudenthal "has a discomfort level with the conservation districts and this isn't the first time it's showed itself," Magagna said.

Senate again passes bill to expand wilderness

For the second time this year, the Senate has passed a long-delayed bill to set aside more than 2 million acres in nine states as protected wilderness, from a California mountain range to a forest in Virginia.

The 77-20 vote on Thursday sends the bill to the House, where final legislative approval could come as early as next week.

The Senate first approved the measure in January, but the House rejected it last week amid a partisan dispute over gun rights. The gun issue was not raised during Senate debate.

The legislation — a package of nearly 170 separate bills — would confer the government's highest level of protection on land ranging from California's Sierra Nevada mountain range and Oregon's Mount Hood to Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado and parts of the Jefferson National Forest in Virginia.

Land in Idaho's Owyhee canyons, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan and Zion National Park in Utah also would win designation as wilderness, and more than 1,000 miles of rivers in nearly a dozen states would gain protections. The proposals would expand wilderness designation — which blocks nearly all development — into areas that now are not protected.

Supporters called the legislation among the most important conservation bills debated in Congress in decades.

"The Senate shows great vision in making this bill a priority," said Paul Spitler of The Wilderness Society. "These wonderful landscapes are under tremendous pressure, and their value to local communities and to all Americans who treasure our natural heritage will remain long after the country has recovered from the economic crisis."

The bill also would let Alaska go forward with plans to build an airport access road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge as part of a land swap that would transfer more than 61,000 acres to the federal government, much of it designated as wilderness.

Critics have called the project a "road to nowhere." Backers say the road is needed for residents of a remote village on the Bering Sea who now use a hovercraft to reach an airport and hospital.

Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, hailed the Idaho provision, which he has been seeking for eight years. The bill represents a compromise among a host of competing groups that have long disagreed over how to manage the rugged canyonland in southwestern Idaho.

"The people who worked on the Owyhee Initiative came from many groups and institutions that historically were battling head-to-head and instead were willing to work through things in a way that sets a tremendous example for how we should approach land management decisions and conflicts in this nation," Crapo said.

Lawmakers from both parties told similar tales in other states, praising the bill as a hard-fought compromise.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who has battled Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., for months over the lands bill, said he was pleased the Senate was finally able to pass it on a bipartisan basis. Reid called the bill important to his home state, Nevada, and to the nation.

Coburn held up the bill's passage last year and again this year, arguing that it was unnecessary and would block energy development on millions of acres of federal land. The bill moved forward this week after Coburn was allowed to submit six amendments for approval. Five were defeated.

A sixth provision, softening a provision to impose criminal penalties for collecting some fossilized rocks on federal land, was included in the final bill.

Because of a parliamentary maneuver adopted in the Senate, the House is expected to take up the bill under a rule that blocks amendments or other motions to derail it. Republicans used the threat of an amendment to allow loaded guns in national parks to defeat the wilderness bill last week.

The bill is H.R. 146.
From Senator Bingaman's website:

Senate Approves Bingaman's Public Lands Bills

WASHINGTON – For the second time this year, the United States Senate today approved a package of bills introduced by U.S. Senator Jeff Bingaman, which contains several provisions to protect important sites in New Mexico. The package, which falls under the jurisdiction of Bingaman’s Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, passed the Senate in January but was revisited this week in hopes of ensuring speedy passage in the House of Representatives.

While the Senate overwhelmingly passed the measure two months ago, it failed to receive the support of two-thirds of the House of Representatives in a vote taken last week. The Senate took up the measure again today, this time with a clarification sought by some House members. Now, only a simple majority is needed to pass the House.

Among the measures included in the package is Bingaman’s “Prehistoric Trackways National Monument Establishment Act”, which seeks to protect 290 million-year old fossilized animal tracks in the Robledo Mountains in Doña Ana County. Specifically, the bill would create a new national monument out of approximately 5,367 acres of Bureau of Land Management land and preserve it for further scientific investigation.

“The fossilized tracks discovered in the Robledo Mountains are of incredible scientific value and this bill will ensure they are protected,” said Bingaman, who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

The package also includes Bingaman’s Forest Landscape Restoration Act, which authorizes $40 million annually for landscape-scale forest restoration projects that cover 50,000 acres or more. Competitive grants would be awarded for restoration projects that are developed in collaboration with local communities. Eligible projects must be in need of ecosystem restoration, utilize the best-available science, encourage the use of restoration byproducts such as woody biomass, and be located primarily on National Forest System land.

“Forest restoration is key to helping prevent wild fires,” Bingaman said. “This bill will provide grants to communities who otherwise might not be able to partake in these prevention measures.”

Additionally, the package includes legislation Bingaman introduced that clears title to several tracks of land and paves the way for the city of Albuquerque to complete its development of a Biological Park along the middle Rio Grande. The Biological Park incorporates the Rio Grande Botanical Garden, Tingley Beach, the Zoo and the Aquarium.

“This legislation will finally clear up this title issue and make it possible for the bio-park to continue expanding,” Bingaman said.

Also in the package is a bill Bingaman co-authored to provide federal protection to the Snowy River formation within the Fort Stanton Cave in Lincoln County.

The Fort Stanton-Snowy River Cave National Conservation Area Act, which was first introduced in the last Congress by then-Senator Pete Domenici, will provide permanent protection to the Snowy River formation and protect it for future research and educational purposes. The formation contains a more than 4-mile-long continuous calcite-crystal river bed that is believed to be the longest one of its kind in the world.

"The Snowy River Cave is one-of-a-kind treasure and I am pleased this bill will help protect it for scientific and educational purposes,” Bingaman said.

Additionally, the package contains the National Landscape Conservation System Act, a measure sponsored by Bingaman, which codifies the National Landscape Conservation System, the collection of national monuments, national conservation areas, wilderness areas, wild and scenic rivers and other landscapes on public lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

Finally, the bill contains two measures that allow for the exchange of land in the Santa Fe National Forest; Pecos National Historical Park Land Exchange; Santa Fe National Forest Land Conveyance.

From Senator Udall's website:


Legislation Contained in Bingaman Public Lands Package

WASHINGTON – By a vote of 77-20, the U.S. Senate today passed legislation to designate more than 17,000 acres in San Miguel County as wilderness. The Sabinoso Wilderness Act, legislation authored by Senator Tom Udall when he served in the House, was passed for a second time in a package of public land bills assembled by Senator Jeff Bingaman.

The proposed new wilderness area would contain lands currently included in the Sabinoso Wilderness Study Area. The land is managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

Udall, the BLM and local landowners worked together to develop this legislation to designate the area as wilderness, to protect the rugged and dramatic landscape. The area includes scenic canyons and mesas, which are home to a variety of wildlife, including mule deer, elk, mountain lions, and wild turkey. It is also rich in canyon vistas, including the 1,000-foot tall Canyon Largo, and impressive rock formations — all part of a vibrant Great Plains ecosystem.

“This legislation to protect and expand this amazing area for public us is the product of years of hard work on the local, state and federal level,” said Udall. “I want to thank Senator Bingaman for including it in his lands package, which has now passed the Senate twice, and I call on the House to pass it quickly. It is time the Sabinoso Wilderness Act became law.”

“This legislation gives Sabinoso the special attention it needs and deserves, and makes certain that it can be enjoyed by New Mexicans for years to come,” Bingaman said.

The New Mexico State House of Representatives, led by Representative Thomas Garcia, and the San Miguel County Commission both passed resolutions calling on the New Mexico Congressional delegation to support the establishment of the Sabinoso Wilderness Area. The wilderness area would be open for grazing, hunting and other recreational uses.

The legislation will now move to the House of Representatives for consideration. On March 11, 2009, the House fell two votes short of the two-thirds vote necessary to approve similar legislation under special rules for expedited consideration. The Senate previously passed the legislation by a vote of 73-22 in January.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Senate proceeds to placeholder bill for omnibus public lands bill

The Senate yesterday approved the first step of a Democratic plan designed to get the omnibus public lands, water and natural resources bill to the White House.

By a 73-21 vote, the Senate approved a cloture motion allowing it to proceed to a placeholder bill for S. 22 (pdf), the collection of more than 160 lands and water bills it first passed in January.

Senate leaders now plan to strip the contents of H.R. 146 (pdf), a proposal to protect Revolutionary War battlefields, and replace it with the omnibus lands bill in an attempt to make it palatable to the House. A cloture motion to cut off debate is likely before moving to final passage later this week.

The plan demonstrates the lengths lawmakers are going to in order to avoid another lengthy delay in the Senate or a potentially difficult vote on GOP amendments in the House.

The Senate first passed the omnibus in January, 74-21. But last week, the House fell two votes shy of passing the bill under suspension of the rules, a maneuver that shields legislation from amendment or a motion to recommit but requires a two-thirds majority for passage.

Because H.R. 146 has already passed the House, the House Rules Committee could approve a closed rule that would block a motion to recommit, the House parliamentarian said last week. That would eliminate the GOP's best procedural chance to stymie the bill. House Democrats could also choose to bring up the bill under suspension again, if they believe they can reach the two-thirds threshold.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who held many of the bills in the omnibus for months over the last year, said he will once again attempt to block the measure as the Democratic leadership prevents attempts to amend it. "I plan on using every tool, every tool, that I can to delay and obstruct this piece of legislation, because it's not in the best interest, long-term interest of our country," Coburn said prior to yesterday's vote.

After the vote, Coburn said he will see whether Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) will allow him to offer amendments. Coburn declined to say which amendments he would want, adding, "Well I'd love to offer a hundred, but that's not what I'm asking."

A preliminary discussion on the floor went nowhere. "He said, 'I'm too tired to deal with it,'" Coburn said.

But Coburn said it is not a personal dispute with Reid. "He's got a tough job, he's got to run the floor and I understand his position and I'd probably be taking his same position -- but I'm not taking his same position."

A bill too far? critics ask

The omnibus would designate more than 2 million acres of wilderness in nine states and would establish three new national park units, a new national monument, three new national conservation areas, more than 1,000 miles of national wild and scenic rivers and four new national trails. It would enlarge the boundaries of more than a dozen existing national park units and establish 10 new national heritage areas.

It would also authorize numerous land exchanges and conveyances to help local Western communities address water resource and supply issues, and includes provisions to improve land management.

"This is collectively one of the most significant conservation measures considered by this body in the past decade," Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), whose committee put the omnibus together, said on the floor yesterday.

The revised omnibus bill will also include language from Rep. Jason Altmire (D-Pa.) meant to ensure that the omnibus would not close off lands that are already open to hunting and fishing.

But Coburn and House Republicans say the bill goes too far. Coburn noted that several provisions in the omnibus would preclude the opportunity for energy development on public lands, including one bill that would block the development of natural gas and oil in Wyoming.

"We're setting a precedent for a very weak foundation for our future energy needs," Coburn said.

Senate Energy Committee ranking member Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who supports the omnibus, noted that federal agencies have certified that none of the wilderness designations will negatively impact on the availability of oil or gas because the land was being managed for conservation purposes already. She said the country can maximize domestic energy development while protecting natural resources.

"I do not believe that this is an either-or situation," she said, adding that the Wyoming provision has the strong backing of the state's two Republican senators.

As for cost concerns, she said the bill does authorize some expenditure of funds, but each is dependent on future appropriations and the oversight that comes with the committee process.

While saying the omnibus process is not her "preferred method" for passing legislation, she urged senators to support it. "Overall this package will improve the nation's management of public lands and parks and will be a long-term benefit," Murkowski said.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Valles Caldera: A turning point

Halfway through its congressional timeline, some think the Valles Caldera experiment has failed, while others see progress

Joan Kavanau would love to see more of the green valleys and forests in the Valles Caldera National Preserve near Los Alamos.

The Santa Fe resident has driven along the edge of the 88,900-acre preserve in the Jemez Mountains on N.M. 4, but never through the ancient collapsed volcano.

Kavanau, 75, can't hike and there's no place to park a car and take a short walk or sit and have a picnic in the preserve's interior. Two years ago she joined a line of 1,500 cars trying to drive into the preserve on the first, and only, open access day. The line was so long she gave up.

"It would be nice if they could open access more," Kavanau said. "Even to be given the opportunity to call and make an appointment to go see it. Right now it's inaccessible really except under their terms."

Public access remains one of the biggest bones of contention between the Valles Caldera Trust that manages the preserve and the people who want to experience it. Congress bought the former ranch for $101 million in 2000 and established the preserve as an experiment in land management, with a 15-year initial timeline to meet a difficult set of goals: protect the natural resources, allow public access, maintain a working ranch and be financially self-sufficient.

The Trust's board, staff and lead scientist say great strides have been made in opening the former private ranch to public activities, given the challenges of starting from scratch. A new executive director says the groundwork is almost finished to finally provide more access. Gary Bratcher, the executive director since January, thinks the Trust can come close to meeting all the congressional goals, including financial self-sufficiency.

Others say the experiment has failed and it's time to rethink who manages the preserve. They say it's taken too long and cost too much money for the public to gain access to the land. "These guys tried as hard as they could. I don't think I or any of their critics could have done better," said Dave F. Menicucci, a fishing guide and Sandia National Laboratories research engineer. "It simply is a model that doesn't work."

Conflicting uses

Everything about managing the Valles Caldera National Preserve seems to stir deep passions and disagreements.

Some people want completely open and free access. Others, like Kavanau, understand the need for some fees and limits on how many people a day use the preserve in order to protect the resources. Some, like Los Alamos hiker and historian Dorothy Hoard, say the current system of guided van tours and fishing is cumbersome and too expensive for many New Mexicans.

Local ranchers want to allow to more grazing. Some don't want any cows on the preserve. Some just don't want cows sharing the limited stream stretches in the preserve where anglers are allowed to fish. "You have to be stealthy with these fish. So you are crawling on hands and knees and stick your hand in a fresh cow pie," said Menicucci, describing the unpleasant experience of several anglers.

Elk hunting remains the biggest revenue source for the preserve. The Trust wants to auction off a limited number of bull elk tags available for the preserve. The Legislature is considering a bill to allow the move, but some hunters oppose it.

Tom Ribe, president of the nonprofit advocacy group Caldera Action, thinks the Trust board lacks experience in federal public land management and dealing openly with the public. The Trust's board members are presidential appointees serving staggered terms. He said the private sector board is too tied to politics and doesn't work. "Imagine having seven bosses who are constantly changing and are politically appointed," Ribe said.

"There is nothing they have done to make things better," Ribe said. "People are frustrated and fed up with the focus on making money. We could run this place cheaper and far better with the traditional land management model."

Ernie Atencio, who chaired an earlier preserve advocacy group called the Valles Caldera Coalition, agrees there have been many problems with the Trust. Like others, he thinks removing the financial self-sufficiency mandate would help. "But I wouldn't abandon the experiment," said Atencio, now executive director of the Taos Land Trust. "Let it run its 15 years."

Opening access

Last year, about 15,000 people hiked, biked, rode horses, hunted, fished, snowshoed, skied or went on a van tour in the Valles Caldera.

Dennis Trujillo, longtime preserve manager, thinks that's a pretty good start to public access in the six years since the Trust took over management. Especially for a place that started with no job descriptions, office, vehicles or staff. "I think we've done a great job getting the public on there although not as much as people would like," said Trujillo, who used to work for the Forest Service. "Now we're open seven days a week once the roads are manageable, usually from mid-May to November."

When Congress bought the former Baca Ranch, then owned by a Texas ranch family, no one but invited guests, cowboys and poachers had visited the interior of the Valles Caldera.

The preserve was closed for the first two years and managed by the Forest Service while the Trust hired staff and set up policies. At the time, author and first Trust chairman William deBuys said, "This is not going to be like starting the Indy 500; there won't be a certain moment when all the programs are launched. Rather we expect an incremental and progressive opening of multiple programs over a considerable period of time."

In 2003, more than 5,000 people toured portions of the Valles Caldera through various recreation programs. The number has increased every year.

But to protect the resources while allowing public access is a difficult balance. "I still feel this is a jewel of the Southwest," Trujillo said. "To really continue to have it as a jewel and public land, there is going to have to be restricted access to preserve the resource. When you look at other areas of public lands where use is unrestricted, it wouldn't take long to degrade (the preserve)."

Ribe and others who worked to support federal purchase of the preserve for the public said too little has been accomplished for public access in eight years. The preserve was purchased with money from the Land and Conservation Fund, derived from off-shore oil revenue and dedicated to buying land for public recreation. "Now it's been nine years," Hoard said. "When I go to meetings I see there's been no advancement in allowing more public access."

Ribe and Hoard say the nearby Bandelier National Monument sees more than 200,000 visitors a year on only 33,000 acres. They say the National Park Service knows how to manage a lot of people while protecting resources, and would do a better job of managing the Valles Caldera National Preserve.

But Bandelier also has been a protected public park for more than nine decades, complete with a visitor center, paved roads, bathrooms and other infrastructure the Valles Caldera lacks. "To be successful, I think we have to have good roads and year-round access," said Bratcher, a retired agri-businessman who managed large plantations for United Fruit Co. and Del Monte all over Latin America and in the Philippines.

In addition, Bandelier is protected by something else the Valles Caldera Trust lacks — federal liability insurance. Federal lawyers decided the Trust didn't qualify and needed to find its own private insurance in case a visitor sued. The insurance cost more than $80,000 last year and wouldn't cover much if someone sued. U.S. Sens. Jeff Bingaman and Tom Udall are looking at how to resolve the insurance dilemma. But until then, Bratcher said, "If something happened, we would have to close the gates and not let anyone in."

Laying the groundwork

Decisions about recreation, grazing and roads on the Valles Caldera National Preserve are supposed to be based on "adaptive management" — in other words, the actual impact of any activity based on scientific data. Atencio said that means making decisions not geared toward recreation or grazing or any particular use "but toward what is best for the land."

Bob Parmenter, the lead scientist at the Valles Caldera National Preserve, is excited about the new board and Bratcher. He believes the scientific groundwork is finally ready that will help the Trust make better management decisions.

Over the past eight years researchers from all over the country have collected data on wildlife species, water quality, archeological resources, soil, grasses, forests and more. Their work also brought in $1.6 million last year alone in research funds and grants. None of that was available until the Congress bought the preserve and scientists could begin field work.

Parmenter doesn't think it would have mattered who managed the preserve from the beginning, all the scientific data had to be gathered under federal law before more public access and recreation programs could be planned. And he doesn't think it would have happened any faster. "The flexibility of the Trust allowed interim programs and gave the public some access," Parmenter said. "It was less then what the public wants, but more than what would have happened under strict (federal environment) requirements if another federal agency managed it."

A public use and access plan should be ready for comment within the year. Parmenter believes the Trust is at a turning point. "It's been a learning process. Our past boards have been extremely cautious," he said. "We finally have a group of people on the board who are taking this to heart and moving it forward. We are going as fast as we can legally move."

The trick, Parmenter said, will be how to "make the preserve accessible to all economic strata of society. We cannot become an exclusive playground of the rich."

Taking stock

Steve Henry, a retired state Department of Game and Fish biologist and the Trust board's new chairman, agreed there have been problems. He said the board hasn't been as responsive to the public as it should and shied away from a stronger focus on recreational programs. "With any experiment you will have failures, starts and stops," Henry said. "There have been a lot of mistakes."

But he believes that is changing now with Bratcher, the appointment of new board members and the hiring of the first communications person in more than three years.

Bratcher is approaching the Valles Caldera from a business perspective. He thinks there are a lot of ways to bring more visitors into the Valles Caldera, give them a quality experience and raise revenues to make the preserve self-sufficient. Moreover, he thinks if the Valles Caldera experiment in land management works it will be an important model for Congress to buy other large ranches — currently getting subdivided into small ranchettes — and protect them as public land operated by self-generated revenues.

Several people think this is a good time to seek public input on how the preserve is managed. "Congressional hearings would be good as long as they are structured to have useful outcomes and aren't just complaint fests," deBuys said.

Caldera Action has drafted a bill to change the Valles Caldera mandate and turn management over to the National Park Service. The group hopes to convince New Mexico's congressmen to introduce the bill by the end of the year.

Kavanau still hopes one day to take that drive through the Valles Caldera. A retired marketing professional, she thinks there are many, simple ways the Trust can allow "the public to share in it with dignity and discretion."

Contact Staci Matlock at 470-9843 or smatlock@sfnewmexican.com.


House Bill 11: Allows a portion of elk licenses established by the state Game and Fish Department for the Valles Caldera National Preserve to be auctioned or sold in a manner different from other state game licenses. Elk hunting is the largest money-maker for the preserve. Passed the House in early March. Now before the Senate Conservation Committee.

Senate Memorial 32: A memorial calling for congressional hearings on creating new management of the Valles Caldera National Preserve since "it has become clear that the experimental management system for the Valles Caldera preserve will never generate adequate funding without developing and destroying the preserve" and because "the current experimental management system has failed to provide adequate access to the public for responsible use and enjoyment". Passed the Senate 32-3 on March 3.

The next Valles Caldera Trust public meeting is Thursday in Albuquerque at the Hilton Garden Inn. For more information: www.vallescaldera.gov.

Bighorn battle could doom sheep ranchers

A battle on the steep slopes of the Snake and Salmon river canyons that pits one of Idaho's most iconic wild animals against one of the state's historic industries is inching toward a conclusion.

Managers of the Payette National Forest are faced with what looks like a stark choice between preserving majestic bighorn sheep or reducing and maybe even eliminating grazing by domestic sheep on much of the forest. Years of deliberation, research and political maneuvering appear to be tilting in favor of the wild sheep and at the expense of a handful of ranching families with decades-long ties to the land.

The complex issue boils down to a simple reality in the eyes of wild sheep advocates and game and land managers. When wild bighorns and their domestic cousins mix, the bighorns die from pneumonia. Scientists don't know all the hows or whys. But game and land managers say the science is clear enough for them to proclaim the two species should be kept apart.

"When you put domestics and bighorns together, the bighorns die. We don't need to know any more than that. It is clear we have to have separation," said Keith Lawrence, director of the Nez Perce Tribe's wildlife department.

To that end, managers on the Payette National Forest are working on a plan that attempts to keep domestic sheep from commingling with bighorns. The preferred alternative of the plan draft would reduce sheep grazing on the forest by about 60 percent. Other alternatives call for steeper cuts and some allow more liberal grazing. Many environmental groups and bighorn advocates favor an alternative that ends sheep grazing or one that reduces grazing even more.

The ranchers say if the preferred alternative is selected, it will spell doom for their livelihoods.

"For Christ sakes, it puts me out of business," said Mick Carlson, a Riggins-area sheep rancher who has grazing allotments on the Nez Perce and Payette national forests. "It isn't just a little stroke of the brush, it's the whole damn deal. It puts me clean out of business. I won't have any range whatsoever."

Margaret Soulen Hinson, whose family also runs sheep on the Payette, said the plan would essentially put all of the sheep ranchers who use the Salmon River Canyon and Hells Canyon out of business.

Like most complex natural resource issues, there is some scientific debate. Researchers at the University of Idaho Caine Veterinary Teaching Center dispute that domestic sheep are to blame for spreading disease to bighorns. They say there is not definitive proof that the pathogens carried by domestic sheep are being transmitted to wild sheep. Marie Bulgin, director of the center, believes bighorns themselves are carrying the disease germs that cause the pneumonia and they likely contract it when they become stressed from environmental conditions such as drought.

"I've got to tell you, it's their own bugs that are killing them and their own bugs will continue to kill them when they take domestic sheep off of the range. But then it will be too late for the domestic sheep industry."

But Bulgin is in the minority. Other scientists cite several studies that have placed domestic and wild sheep together, and those experiments almost always result in dead bighorns. Subramaniam Srikumaran, a professor at Washington State University who goes by Dr. Shri, recently completed a study where he took a pathogen from four domestic sheep and tagged it with a genetic marker. He then reintroduced the tagged germ to the domestic sheep. Over the course of months he gradually mixed the four domestic sheep with four tame bighorns.

When the two species were kept about 50 feet apart from each other, the wild sheep remained healthy. After the sheep were separated only by a chain-link fence, two of the wild sheep picked up the tagged pathogen and one of them developed pneumonia. Next, the animals were all put in the same pen, and the bighorns started dying of pneumonia. Tests showed the disease developed from the same pathogen that he tagged and grew in the domestic sheep.

"So this study, in my opinion, it concludes or irrefutably proves the organisms can be transmitted from domestic to bighorn sheep, at least under these experimental conditions."

Dr. Shri is working on a way to allow the two species to commingle without disease transfer. He is not ready to talk about that work but is hopeful it will lead to a long-term solution.

"I'm not working against domestic sheep or supporting domestic sheep," he said. "We want to identify the problem and see, as scientists, if we can come up with a solution that is good for both sides."

But until that hope becomes a reality, the ranchers face the likelihood of having to adapt to unwanted change.

"This is their way of life and you are mandating change. The tribe is very sympathetic to that. It is the story the tribe has been living," Lawrence said.

Wildlife biologists across the West have watched for years as wild sheep died after coming into contact with domestic sheep.

Hells Canyon once had a wild sheep population estimated at 10,000. Today it is home to about 875 bighorns. Many of those are the descendants of 600 wild sheep transplanted there, from other areas over the past 30 years. In 1996, the canyon was hit with a die-off that killed about 300 animals. Since then, different herds in the canyon have struggled as lambs succumb to pneumonia.

Far less is known about the wild sheep in the Salmon River country between Riggins and the South Fork of the Salmon, where there have not been any reintroduction efforts. Biologist estimate there are about 100 native bighorns there and population trend surveys show wild sheep numbers have slid by 70 percent in the last two decades. Nearly all wildlife biologists pin the problem on the presence of domestic sheep. But the ranchers say they never see wild sheep on the grazing allotments. The tribe and others are working on a research project to better understand how wild sheep use the canyon.

The issue reached a boiling point on the Payette National Forest when a new forest plan was released in 2003. That plan left domestic sheep grazing unchanged. The Nez Perce Tribe and three environmental groups appealed the forest plan. In 2005, the chief of the U.S. Forest Service ordered the forest to rewrite the plan to protect wild sheep and their habitat by making sure domestic and wild sheep do not interact.

"The federal law says we must provide quality, well-distributed habitat across the planning unit that will provide for a viable population of desirable native and non-native wildlife species," said Pattie Soucek, a planner for the forest. "We have plenty of habitat, well distributed and it's of high quality. The chief told us as long as you have domestic sheep on the habitat it is not available."

After the remand, the forest conducted an assessment of the risk sheep grazing was causing to bighorns. That assessment was then reviewed by a panel of outside scientists. They concluded that mixture of the two species spreads disease from domestic to wild sheep -- scientists don't know how or why -- that the two species are curious about each other and want to interact, and that until science can provide more information the prudent action is to keep the species separate.

The findings were followed by a few years of inaction. Then, in 2007, Western Watersheds Project sued the agency and asked a federal judge not to allow grazing until the forest plan remand was finished. Eventually a settlement was reached based upon recommendations by the Nez Perce Tribe that forbid grazing in high-risk areas. But the lawsuit, which has many facets, continues.

Last year the forest completed a draft of its new bighorn sheep plan. Public comments on that draft are due Tuesday. Soucek said the agency will review the comments, make adjustments to the plan and issue a final decision near the end of the year. She is well aware of what is at stake.

"You have people's livelihood that depend on the domestic sheep, you have people's livelihoods that depend on the wild sheep and you have the tribe that depends on the resource," Soucek said. "It's social, it's political, it's tribal, it's economical. It is not your typical clean-cut resource analysis. It's a very complex one."

The ranchers don't believe their sheep are making the bighorns sick. But they also believe a 1997 agreement they signed with the Wallowa Whitman National Forest, Idaho, Oregon and Washington game departments, the Bureau of Land Management and the Wild Sheep Foundation protected them from any negative consequences of the bighorns transplanted from other states mixing with domestic sheep.

"My hope is these agencies and groups that signed this 1997 agreement, somewhere somebody is going to stand up and decide they ought to live up to their promises, especially our own government," said Ron Shirts, who runs sheep on the Payette. "If we had signed an agreement similar to that, you know dang well what side of the court the ball would be on. We would be made to stand by it and we would stand by it."

But people from those agencies say the agreement covered only one specific release of wild sheep, pertaining only to the Wallowa Whitman forest, and doesn't cover wild sheep introduced to the canyon prior to 1997 or sheep native to the canyon. They also say the agreement was signed without proper federal review and environmental analysis. That was stated in the Forest Service 2007 decision to reject the Payette National Forest plan that allowed grazing to continue based on the agreement.

"This thing is in violation of every federal land law you can think of, from the National Environmental Policy Act, National Forest Management Act to the Nez Perce 1855 treaty," said Neil Thagard of the Wild Sheep Foundation. "The thing basically has no legs; that is why the chief of the Forest Service threw it out."

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Path of the Jaguar

At dusk one evening, deep in a Costa Rican forest, a young male jaguar rises from his sleep, stretches, and silently but determinedly leaves forever the place where he was born.

There's shelter here, and plenty of brocket deer, peccaries, and agoutis for food. He has sensed, too, the presence of females with which he might mate. But there's also a mature male jaguar that claims the forest—and the females. The older cat will tolerate no rivals. The breeze-blown scent of the young male's mother, so comforting to him when he was a cub, no longer binds him to his home. So he goes.

But the wanderer has chosen the wrong direction. In just a few miles he reaches the edge of the forest; beyond lies a coffee plantation. Pushed by instinct and necessity, he keeps moving, staying in the trees along fences and streams. Soon, though, shelter consists only of scattered patches of shrubs and a few trees, where he can find nothing to eat. He's now in a land of cattle ranches, and one night his hunger and the smell of a newborn calf overcome his reluctance to cross open areas. Creeping close before a final rush, he instantly kills the calf with one snap of his powerful jaws.

The next day the rancher finds the remains and the telltale tracks of a jaguar. He calls some of his neighbors and gathers a pack of dogs. The hunters find the young male, but they're armed only with shotguns; anxious, they shoot from too great a distance. The jaguar's massively thick skull protects him from death, but the pellets blind him in one eye and shatter his left foreleg.

Crippled now, unable to find his normal prey in the scrubby forest, let alone stalk and kill it, he's driven by hunger to easier meals. He kills another calf on an adjacent ranch, and then a dog on the outskirts of a nearby town. This time, though, he lingers too long. Attracted by the dog's howls, a group of villagers tree him and, though it takes many blasts, kill him. Jaguars, they say, are nothing but cattle killers, dog killers. They are vermin. They should be shot on sight, anytime, anywhere.

This sad story has been played out thousands of times throughout the jaguar's homeland, stretching from Mexico (and formerly the United States) to Argentina. In recent decades it's happened with even greater frequency, as ranching, farming, and development have eaten up half the big cat's prime habitat, and as humans have decimated its natural prey in many areas of remaining forest.

Alan Rabinowitz envisions a different ending to the story. He imagines that the young jaguar, when he leaves his birthplace, will pass unseen by humans through a near-continuous corridor of sheltering vegetation. Within a couple of days he'll find a small tract of forest harboring enough prey for him to stop and rest a day or two before resuming his trek. Eventually he'll reach a national park or wildlife preserve where he'll find a home, room to roam, plenty of prey, females looking for a mate.

Rabinowitz is the world's leading jaguar expert, and he has begun to realize his dream of creating a vast network of interconnected corridors and refuges extending from the U.S.-Mexico border into South America. It is known as Paseo del Jaguar—Path of the Jaguar. Rabinowitz considers such a network the best hope for keeping this great New World cat from joining lions and tigers on the endangered species list.

Rabinowitz began his work with the Wildlife Conservation Society and now heads the Panthera Foundation, a conservation group dedicated to protecting the world's 36 species of wild cats. The foundation's current work represents a radical change in Rabinowitz's conservation philosophy from just a decade ago. In the 1990s, having censused jaguars across their range, Rabinowitz and other specialists identified dozens of what they called jaguar conservation units (JCUs): large areas with perhaps 50 jaguars, where the local population was either stable or increasing. At the heart of most of the JCUs were existing parks or other protected areas, which Rabinowitz hoped to expand and secure with surrounding buffer zones. "I felt that the best thing we could hope to do was to lock up these great populations in these fragmented areas," he said.

Within a few years, though, the new science of DNA fingerprinting—studying genetic material to determine family and species relationships—revealed an amazing fact: The jaguar is the only large, wide-ranging carnivore in the world with no subspecies. Simply put, this means that for millennia jaguars have been mingling their genes throughout their entire range, so that individuals in northern Mexico are identical to those in southern Brazil. For that to be true, some of the cats must wander regularly and widely between populations.

Rabinowitz and his colleagues went back to their data to see whether the preserves could still be linked with habitat adequate to support a traveling jaguar. "Lo and behold," Rabinowitz said, "while good jaguar habitat, where the cats can live and breed, has decreased by 50 percent since the 1900s, habitat a jaguar can use to travel through has decreased only by 16 percent. Most of it is intact and contiguous. These places are like little oases—very small patches that jaguars will come to, use a while, and then leave. We were writing these places off because they're not habitat where a permanent jaguar population can live. Now they're turning out to be crucial."

Rabinowitz hopes to convince national governments throughout the jaguar's range to maintain this web of habitat through enlightened land-use planning, such as choosing noncritical areas for major developments and road construction. "We're not going to ask them to throw people off their land or to make new national parks," he said. The habitat matrix could encompass woodlands used for a variety of human activities from timber harvest to citrus plantations. Studies have shown that areas smaller than one and a half square miles can serve as temporary, one- or two-day homes—stepping-stones—for wandering jaguars.

While the habitat making up the proposed network is mostly intact for now, prompt conservation action will be needed to protect it, especially in certain areas of Central America and Colombia, where some jaguar travel paths already are critically tenuous. By studying satellite photographs and airplane surveys, and walking sections of the proposed corridor to follow up on reports from local people, Rabinowitz and his team can identify the segments most in need of protection. He then can go to government decision-makers with hard scientific data, he said. "Our first challenge is looking at corridors where there's just a single tendril. We've got to lock up these areas."

Diana Hadley of the Arizona-based Northern Jaguar Project works to protect the northernmost jaguar population in Mexico, with the long-term goal of seeing the species return to the United States. Hadley said the project and its Mexican partners "fully support" Paseo del Jaguar. "If these magnificent animals are ever to reoccupy appropriate habitat north of the border," she said, "the stepping-stones in the jaguar corridor are essential." Paseo del Jaguar ranks with the world's most ambitious conservation programs, and realizing it will take many years. Rabinowitz is focusing first on Mexico and Central America, where officials in all eight countries have approved the project. Costa Rica has already incorporated protection of the corridor into laws regulating development.

Later he'll tackle South America, where landscapes and political situations are more diverse and challenging. Rabinowitz is encouraged, though, by his audiences' emotional response when he talks about jaguars—a response based on the animal's enduring aura of beauty, strength, and mystery. Indigenous peoples around Mexico's central plateau, and the Maya, farther south, incorporated the jaguar into their art and mythology. Today even mobile-phone-carrying government ministers sitting in urban offices feel what Rabinowitz calls "a powerful cultural thread binding them to their ancestors. Nobody can say that the jaguar is not part of their own heritage," he said. "What better unifying symbol can there be than the jaguar?"

Obama Delists Wolf In Idaho & Montana

In a blow to environmental groups and a boost for ranchers, the Obama administration announced Friday that it would take the gray wolf off the endangered species list in Montana and Idaho, though it left the predator under federal protection in Wyoming.

The delisting allows Montana and Idaho to assume complete management of the animal, which will include a hunting season in both states. The move also delists wolves in the western Great Lakes and parts of Oregon, Utah and Washington.

The new policy was announced by the Bush administration in January, but its adoption was delayed so the incoming Obama administration could assess it.

“The recovery of the gray wolf throughout significant portions of its historic range is one of the great success stories of the Endangered Species Act,” Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said. “Today, we have more than 5,500 wolves, including more than 1,600 in the Rockies.”

Jenny Harbine, a lawyer with Earthjustice in Bozeman, Mont., which has sued to keep the federal protections, said, “We’re disappointed.” She added, “Idaho has shown an eagerness to kill as many wolves as possible, and they are drawing up plans for killing wolves as we speak.”

In 2007, Gov. C. L. Otter of Idaho said he favored reducing the number of wolves there to 100 from more than 800. He also said he would be the first to buy a wolf hunting license.

Officially, however, Idaho has agreed in its state plan to maintain a population of 500 wolves. Montana has agreed to keep 400 wolves. If the number of animals falls below 150 total and 15 breeding pairs for three years in a row, the wolf will be relisted in that state.

Environmentalists sued last year to stop the delisting under the Bush administration. They argued that without protection, wolf numbers were not great enough to assure connectivity between animals in different regions of the northern Rockies, which is crucial to assuring long-term survival.

A federal judge agreed, issuing a temporary injunction to stop the delisting. The Fish and Wildlife Service then dropped its proposal for more study. “We now have information that wolves routinely move back and forth between recovery areas,” said Ed Bangs, the agency’s recovery coordinator in Helena, Mont. “We’ve resolved that issue.”

Environmentalists say they will take the issue back to court.

While state wolf management plans in Idaho and Montana assure protection, federal officials say, the one in Wyoming falls short, so the wolf will remain listed there. Yet in most of Wyoming, the wolf is designated as a predator and could be shot on sight if it were to be delisted. Controversy erupted last year when people chased wolves down on snowmobiles and killed them from planes.

Friday, March 6, 2009

NY Times: Extensive lands protection bill could thwart new energy development

The 111th Congress is poised to usher in the largest expansion of the nation's wilderness in a generation, with 2.1 million acres of public land in line for the strictest environmental protections allowed under federal law.

An omnibus lands bill that could receive final congressional approval this month would create new wilderness areas in nine states -- from the San Gabriel Mountains of California to Michigan's Lake Superior shoreline to a portion of the Appalachian Trail in Virginia -- covering almost as much land as the 2.4 million acres designated during the entire eight years of the Bush presidency.

Meanwhile, Reps. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), and Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) last month introduced the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act, which would designate 24 million acres of mostly Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service land in five states as wilderness area.

The wilderness proposals carry significant implications, particularly for BLM and the Forest Service, which must manage public lands for multiple uses, including oil and gas drilling, minerals mining, timber harvesting and a variety of recreational uses.

By contrast, wilderness areas are by their very definition sanctuaries of quiet solitude, or as the 1964 law states, areas "where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain." In practical terms, that means wilderness is off limits to all human activities except hiking, canoeing and some hunting and fishing.

The surge in congressional interest in wilderness designations, particularly by Democrats but also some Republicans, is a tonic to many conservation groups who are still angered by Bush administration policies that they say favored natural resource extraction priorities like mining and drilling over land preservation.

"If you've ever gone out and taken a look at areas intensively drilled for oil and gas, you're talking about lands that look like a moonscape. They're ecologically devastated," said Paul Spitler, national wilderness campaigns associate director for the Wilderness Society. "These designations are significant because people don't realize that public lands are open to a wide variety of uses that can be just as damaging as putting up a bunch of condos."

There are, however, potential drawbacks to expanding wilderness designations, especially when it comes to energy production.

Roughly a third of the country's domestic energy is produced on lands managed by the Interior Department, officials say, and those numbers are expected to grow as more wind and solar energy projects are approved on public lands.

But wind farms, solar arrays and geothermal plants are forbidden in wilderness areas, said Mike Olsen, a former Interior senior administrator now with the environmental strategies group at the law firm Bracewell & Giuliani.

That is a huge concern, Olsen said, because the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act includes billions of dollars in incentives and tax breaks to encourage the development of renewable energy.

"You are in effect closing these lands off to domestic energy development," Olsen said. "In this world, where domestic energy production is so important, what does this mean to have additional public land taken off the table for energy development? I'm not placing value on one over the other. But we need to consider these impacts."

Spitler acknowledged the wilderness designations could affect some alternative energy development. He also is sensitive to the concerns of those who worry the wilderness designations could lessen their enjoyment of public land. Motorized vehicles such as snowmobiles are forbidden in wilderness areas.

But he and other conservationists say the increased protections are necessary.

"Between energy production and off-road vehicles we're losing land at a rapid pace," Spitler said. "We need these areas to receive permanent protection before they're lost."

A new vision

At issue is the National Wilderness Preservation System and attempts to add to the 107 million acres of public land already designated as wilderness.

The centerpiece of the latest effort to expand wilderness designations is the "Omnibus Public Land Management Act," which the Senate approved in January. The bill consolidates dozens of individual wilderness bills, from designating 37,000 acres within the Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia to 700,000 acres and 105 miles of rivers and streams in California.

If Congress approves the measure, it will be the single largest wilderness designation since the 1994 California Desert Protection Act, which extended the highest federal protection to 3.5 million acres of BLM lands in the Mojave Desert.

The new push for wilderness represents a stark change from the Bush administration and 12 years of the Republican-controlled Congresses, which tended to view public lands as resources that should be tapped for their abundant fossil fuels, timber and minerals, said Myke Bybee, a public lands representative for the Sierra Club.

"The wilderness designations in the omnibus bill will add a level of protection that's far more extensive than what they are now, and I think it's necessary," said Bill Wade, executive council chairman of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, which was critical of the Bush administration's conservation policies.

Some of the wilderness designations in the bill, such as expanding the 14,000-acre Little River Canyon National Preserve in northeast Alabama, would have tremendous environmental value. Little River, atop Lookout Mountain, is one of the nation's longest mountaintop rivers and proponents want to ensure it stays pristine.

Other designations, like the expansion of the Fort Davis National Historic Site in west Texas, are vulnerable but have cultural significance as well. The fort, built in 1854, housed the Army's all-black regiments known as the Buffalo Soldiers.

Most of the proposed wilderness areas in the bill are the result of lengthy negotiations between interest groups, and in some cases the new designations involve trade-offs between preservation and development interests.

For example, Zion National Park in southwest Utah is in the fastest-growing county in the state, and large developments have been proposed to the east and north of the park that could hamper the quality of the natural resource, said David Nimkin, director of the southwest region for the National Parks Conservation Association.

The omnibus lands bill would designate 123,743 acres -- more than 90 percent of the park -- as wilderness. In exchange, lawmakers agreed to sell 9,300 acres of public land to developers and use the money to purchase private parcels within the park boundaries, Nimkin said.

"Getting this thing done is a big deal," he said. "It codifies the protections for the national park into law. There are different administrations, different land managers, and various degrees of local pressure. This takes the administrative decisionmaking and discretion out of the hands of the public land manager."

Planning for global warming

One reason environmentalists are pushing to expand wilderness areas is to protect plants and animals from the damaging effects of climate change.

Scientists have calculated that for every increase in temperature of 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit, the vegetation belt shifts 60 miles north or 550 feet higher in elevation. As vegetation shifts, so too will thousands of species of mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians. Those species whose habitat is not obstructed by highways, subdivisions and other development should be able to migrate to more hospitable climates; those that cannot will die.

The Interior Department and Forest Service have worked the past several years with a conservation effort know as the Wildlands Network to develop and maintain carefully plotted corridors connecting already preserved lands to one another. The network's goal is to create a 5,000-mile-long wildlife corridor stretching from Mexico to Alaska -- an effort that would take decades.

To succeed, the program must connect protected parcels that would allow for northward migration of at-risk species, said John Kostyack, executive director of wildlife conservation and global warming for the National Wildlife Federation.

"Global warming is leading to a complete transformation of how we look at conservation," Kostyack said.

Congress acknowledged that fact last year in the failed Climate Security Act of 2008 sponsored by Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), and John Warner (R-Va.). The bill, which would have been the first to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, included a provision to allocate as much as $7.2 billion a year to BLM, the Park Service, Forest Service and other agencies to purchase conservation easements and restore degraded habitats.

President Obama pledged support for the creation of such a fund during the 2008 campaign. And House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has listed the creation of such a fund as a priority in any future greenhouse gas legislation.

"All the science tells us that we'll need to have connected landscapes for animals and plants to move as the climate warms, and we've already seen in some cases massive shifts of vegetative communities northward," Kostyack said. "It's certainly a key rationale for expanded wildlife designations."

OHV destruction

Another reason cited by environmental groups for expanding U.S. wilderness areas is to protect wildlife and habitat from damage caused by off-highway vehicles like dirt bikes, snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles, which have surged in popularity in recent years.

Snowmobiles in Yosemite National Park, for example, have sparked controversy and court battles, with park managers ultimately setting a daily cap on the number of snowmobiles allowed in the park because their engines scare away wildlife. And in Southern California's Mojave Desert, use of off-highway vehicles on BLM land have crushed hundreds of endangered desert tortoises.

"On the fragile ecosystem in the deserts in the West, where we don't get a lot of rain, the vegetation is already making a living in a very harsh environment," said Ileene Anderson, staff biologist for the Center for Biological Diversity in Los Angeles. "So having somebody come riding their motorcycle or [all-terrain vehicle] through a pristine desert and running over everything, it has a cascading effect on the plants, insects and animals. These fragile lands can't take this continuous assault."

While acknowledging "there are a few knuckleheads" who cause damage to natural resources, Bill Dart, director of land use for the Bakersfield, Calif.-based Off-Road Business Association, a national trade group, said such incidents do not justify a federal prohibition on OHV use by law-abiding citizens on public lands.

"The impacts of off-road vehicles on wildlife have been overblown," Dart said.

Still, Dart said he is encouraged by the fact that federal officials and some advocacy groups have been willing to work with his group when developing wilderness area proposals.

For example, Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) consulted the Off-Road Business Association when developing a proposed 27,000-acre wilderness designation in the San Gabriel Mountains in Northern California. The proposed Pleasant View Ridge Wilderness Area is one of the projects in the omnibus lands bill.

"They were willing to take out all the [off-road trails] that were of interest to us," Dart said. "Wildlife designations are appropriate as long as they don't get carried away. There is a way to do this that's a win-win situation for everyone."

A sign of things to come

While larger than anything proposed under the last several Congresses, the 2009 wilderness proposals are just a glimpse of things to come, congressional watchdogs and conservation leaders say.

Once the omnibus lands bill is approved, the floodgates will open and lawmakers will introduce dozens of wilderness proposals covering potentially millions of acres, experts say.

"There's a whole suite of bills ready to go," said Spitler of the Wilderness Society.

Many of the proposals will come as reintroduced bills from the past six years "that just never got their day in their sun," said Bybee, the Sierra Club official.

Many of the proposals will be modest and noncontroversial, such as a bill by Rep. Dave Reichert (R-Wash.) to add about 22,000 acres to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area in Washington.

Others are huge proposals covering vast expanses of public land. They include:

* California Wild Heritage: Sponsored by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), the bill seeks to designate 2.5 million acres of wilderness, and an additional 400 miles of national wild and scenic rivers across the state. Originally introduced in 2002, Boxer is expected to revive the bill this spring.

* America's Red Rock Wilderness: By far the largest proposal, this bill would designate 9 million acres across Utah as wilderness. The proposal has been introduced in every Congress since 1989 but has never won support from a majority of of Utah's congressional delegation. Nevertheless, plans are under way to reintroduce the bill this session.

* Boulder-White Clouds Wilderness: Proposed by Rep. Mike Simpson, (R-Idaho), the bill would extend wilderness protection to roughly 315,000 acres in the Sawtooth and Salmon-Challis national forests in east-central Idaho.

"Up until recently you had a Congress that wasn't very receptive to wilderness designations, particularly on the House side," Spitler said. "We're finally starting to unclog the pipeline on wilderness designations."

Scott Streater is a freelance journalist based in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Judge rules in southwest Idaho grazing case

A federal judge has directed the Bureau of Land Management to rethink the way it manages grazing across thousands of acres of southern Idaho, especially the impact livestock have on sage grouse and other threatened species.

But Thursday's decision by U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill falls far short of the all-out ban on grazing sought by conservationists on 625,000 acres of the so-called Jarbidge Resource Area, which stretches across southwestern Idaho and Nevada's northeast corner.

The ruling stems from motions filed last year by the Western Watershed Project, a Hailey-based group that has battled for decades to roll back cattle grazing across Idaho and other western states.

Western Watersheds asked the court to ban grazing on 36 allotments, none of which suffered any damage during the Murphy Complex fire in 2007. Ignited by lightning, that wildfire burned for three weeks and became the largest single fire ever fought by the Idaho BLM at nearly 1,000 square miles, leaving dead wildlife and cattle and scorched prime habitat for sage grouse.

Winmill denied the outright ban and a handful of other motions sought by the group to curtail grazing.

But he concluded that grazing is a key factor in the decline of species like the sage grouse, pygmy rabbit and slickspot peppergrass, and that the agency must give more consideration in the future to the impact grazing has on those species and their habitat.

Western Watersheds attorney Laird Lucas cheered the ruling, saying it should force a wholesale shift in the way the agency manages grazing across the West.

"Science has been overlooked in the past," Lucas said. "It's true we did not get a complete halt to grazing like we had asked for in this area. But for the BLM to have to handle grazing differently and follow science, we think, is on the way to good policy."

The ruling, which followed 10 days of testimony, rejected the group's claim that the agency violated federal environmental laws by failing to consider sage grouse when it approved grazing and the repair of 490 miles of fencing in sensitive habitat areas not burned in the Murphy Complex fire. The fire is blamed for destroying 70 prime breeding grounds for sage grouse.

Winmill, who has presided over other cases involving the threatened, chicken-sized bird, also denied a motion to impose restrictions on grazing allotments litigated in a previous federal case and a separate request that the BLM do another environmental impact study on the lands charred in the 2007 fires.

"We think this was an excellent and fair decision," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Deborah Ferguson.

Sage grouse and pygmy rabbit are being reconsidered for federal protection under the Endangered Species Act. The government initially rejected that classification for sage grouse in 2005.

But Western Watersheds sued in federal court in 2007 to force the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to revisit the decision, contending political meddling by White House officials trumped the recommendations by biologists and scientific data. Experts say the bird's numbers are declining, due the loss of sagebrush habitat from wildfire, urban development, grazing, nonnative weed infestations and oil and gas production.

Winmill also presided over that case, ruling in 2007 in favor of Western Watersheds. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed that decision, and a listing decision on the sage grouse is expected later this year.

Lucas said Winmill's latest ruling is one more that favors the bird.

"We all still have to figure out what happens next," Lucas said. "The court did not make that clear. But there is a lot in this ruling that gives the BLM guidance."