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."

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