Saturday, May 23, 2009

Herbicide Plan Threatens Endangered Species in New Mexico

Comments Note Failures to Analyze Toxic Effects to Groundwater and Wildlife

The Center for Biological Diversity today filed comments detailing concerns about the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s proposal to apply chemical herbicides for noxious-weed control on nearly 1.5 million acres of public land in eastern New Mexico, including source-water zones that feed groundwater springs in the Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge.

The agency issued its proposal in an Environmental Assessment on April 20.

The Center comments note failures of the Bureau’s field office in Roswell to properly assess how herbicides may poison groundwater and wildlife. They also question why the agency did not consider how ongoing management practices contribute to the spread of noxious weeds.

Under a 2007 decision authorizing herbicide use on public land in 17 western states, the Bureau is required to designate “herbicide-specific” buffer zones for local water bodies. In addition, it must consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service when its actions may affect threatened or endangered species.

The Roswell assessment meets neither of those conditions, according to Jay Lininger, a Center ecologist.

“The Bureau of Land Management admits that toxic herbicides can poison groundwater and wildlife,” Lininger said. “But agency disregard for basic protections seriously threatens the environment.”

In addition to the Bitter Lake refuge, one of the most biologically significant wetland areas in the Pecos River watershed, the public lands managed by the Roswell office host 11 animals and three plants listed under the Endangered Species Act, as well as five other species that are candidates for listing.

Some of the wildlife that could be affected by chemical spraying live in small areas and can’t escape if their habitat becomes toxic.

“Spraying chemicals without consideration for wildlife that may be affected poses an existential threat to some species,” Lininger said.

The Bureau also should carefully consider how grazing, oil and gas leasing, and recreation activities spread noxious weeds and create a need to use toxic herbicides, he said. “Noxious weeds pose a serious threat to native plant communities and wildlife, too, necessitating active management to contain infestations,” Lininger added.

“Weeds are a major problem, and there are many ways to control them besides using toxic chemicals,” he said. “Before using chemicals, the Bureau needs to show that it’s the best method and that it’s safe.”

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Editorial: Environmentalists threaten livestock industry in Oregon

If there was any doubt the livestock industry is in a fight for its life, the events of recent weeks surely erased such thoughts.

In Eastern Oregon, Grant County ranchers had heard for months that environmental groups were planning to seek new injunctions on Malheur National Forest grazing allotments. Rumor became reality in early April when the Oregon Natural Desert Association, Western Watershed Project and the Center for Biological Diversity asked a federal judge to halt grazing on six allotments, contending federal land managers have failed to prevent cattle grazing from harming endangered fish.

The new injunction would affect 17 ranchers and an estimated 250,000 acres of land. The environmentalists filed their request just as ranchers were preparing for a new grazing season, one now in limbo. It also came just as the ranchers' legal defense group, the Five Rivers Grazing Permittees, had worked with forest officials to craft a plan for drastically reduced grazing on two allotments environmentalists successfully targeted last year.

Attorneys for the ranchers in mid-April asked the federal court to accept the plan and allow some grazing to resume on the Murderers Creek and Lower Middle Fork grazing allotments. Judge Ancer Haggerty, who granted the injunction on the two allotments in May 2008, is expected to consider both the grazing proposal and the request to bar grazing on the additional six allotments at a hearing in June.

Rural communities are watching with concern as events unfold.

The ranchers whose operations are at stake are on hold are awaiting the judge's decision. They are hopeful - but as one rancher put it, not optimistic - there will be a ruling that will enable them to stay in business.They also are aware this skirmish is just part of a larger battle.

The environmental group WildEarth Guardians' recent report blamed cattle grazing for the demise of nearly every endangered or threatened creature in the woods. It asked us to believe cattle are the cause of a host of sins against nature, just about everything except swine flu.

Never mind climate change, wrong-headed firefighting policies of the past, juniper encroachment and invasive species - cows, pure and simple, are the problem, the report says.

In response, resource managers said the conclusions were simplistic; they stressed grazing is an important tool in the management tool box. While some dismissed the report as extremist, it likely served its purpose - drawing headlines and luring more dollars from urban wallets to fund the fight against grazing.

Such tactics underscore the fact that this situation is about as polarized as any political war could be.

In Grant County, the legal wrangling dates back six years. The court filings have pitted environmentalist groups against federal agencies, but the ramifications go far beyond the realms of just these parties.

Stockmen, landowners, resource agencies, recreationists and more all claim a personal stake in the outcome.

Among the stakeholders who seem to get short shrift are the rural communities - communities that began dealing with recessionary times long before the current economic collapse. For Grant County, already constrained by a straitjacketed timber industry, the loss of the livestock industry could be a crippling blow.

The impact may seem hard to comprehend for urbanites in populous metro areas. To be sure, cattle ranchers don't hire hundreds of shift workers, but each may take on a few ranchhands or a part-timer or two to handle seasonal ranch work in a county where every single job is critical. They hire local contractors to build fences, dig ditches and maintain buildings. They spend needed dollars at feed stores, building supply places, tire stores, auto repair shops and more. The impacts ripple through the local economy; stifle them and the entire county will suffer.

It would be tragic if litigation forced the cattle ranchers out of business and pushed communities a step closer toward ghost towns, but it's not an unimaginable scenario.

It's time to look for creative solutions that work for the both fish and people.

The ranchers are doing that with their grazing compromise; the question remains as to whether theirs will be the only voice of reason in the courtroom in June.

Unsigned editorials are the opinion of the East Oregonian editorial board, comprised of Editor George Murdock, Associate Publisher Kathryn Brown, General Manager Wendy DalPez, Managing Editor Skip Nichols and News Editor Daniel Wattenburger. Other columns, letters and cartoons on this page express the opinions of the authors and not necessarily that of the East Oregonian.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Influencing Congress: Defenders’ Effective Offense

It’s a deceptively simple political strategy but it works for the environmental group Defenders of Wildlife.

Rather than trying to elect dozens of friendly lawmakers, it’s been concentrating its money on just a few high-profile races and flooding them with money and volunteers.

It was this strategy in 2006 that allowed the group to help defeat Richard W. Pombo, the California Republican who at the time chaired the House Natural Resources Committee.

Armed with $60,000 worth of polling that suggested Pombo was vulnerable, the group spent $1.7 million through two political funds and fielded canvassers across his district with the message that Pombo was “America’s No. 1 wildlife villain” for helping developers, miners, and the oil and gas industry.

A Web site called posted more information. Pombo lost to Democrat Jerry McNerney by 13,000 votes.

The Washington-based wildlife group, founded in 1947 primarily to fight fur trapping, still mainly focuses on the welfare of predators such as wolves and coyotes. And it’s become an example of a shift in the direction of advocacy groups away from general issue campaigns and toward targeted efforts against individual politicians, while at the same time shielding the identity of political contributors.

This new wave of groups, organized under section 501(c)4 of the tax code as “ideological education” groups, spent nearly $200 million in the 2007-2008 election cycle, more than each party’s congressional campaign committees, according to a study by the Campaign Finance Institute, an academic research group affiliated with George Washington University.

The Defenders in 2006 were involved in 26 races.

Its candidates won in 14, although most of the effort was against Pombo. “We decided that we’re going to be engaged and go after our weakest enemies,” said Rodger Schlickeisen, president of Defenders of Wildlife and its Action Fund. “We wanted to have an impact on legislation.”

Sen. James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, the ranking Republican on the Environment and Public Works Committee, accused the group last fall of raising money by distorting legislation to help Democrats under the guise of environmental protection.

“Campaigns to ‘save the cuddly animals’ or ‘protect the ancient forests’ are really disguised efforts to raise money for Democratic political campaigns,” Inhofe said on the Senate floor. “Environmental organizations have become experts at duplicitous activity, skirting laws up to the edge of illegality and burying their political activities under the guise of nonprofit environmental improvement.”

Last year, the group narrowed its congressional sights even further — to races in Arizona, New Mexico, Alaska and particularly the high-desert plains of eastern Colorado. The Action Fund’s $1.1 million spent to defeat Republican Marilyn Musgrave was particularly potent given that Musgrave and her Democratic challenger, Betsy Markey , each spent $2.9 million on the race.

The environmental group broadcast four television advertisements and two radio spots branding Musgrave “one of the most corrupt members of Congress” and in the pocket of Big Oil.

Musgrave called the ads “millions of dollars of garbage” and her campaign manager compared the third-party spending to a boxing match without referees.

The group also deployed 48 campaign staffers who knocked on 83,000 doors in the district. Markey ended up winning in a walk, with 56 percent.

“It did give us additional respect for our issues,” Schlickeisen said. “It sent a message.” Meanwhile, the group was enlarging its lobbying, which increased from $270,000 in 2004 to $906,000 last year.

It also didn’t relax after the election. Since January, the Defenders have been trading accusations with GOP Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska because of her decisions to allow, among other practices, wolf hunting from helicopters.

Palin has branded Defenders an “extreme fringe group” that uses audacious fundraising appeals to attack a program aimed at curbing predators of moose and caribou.

Other Republicans defend the group. Sen. Michael D. Crapo , R-Idaho, said Defenders of Wildlife works collaboratively on divisive issues such as endangered species. “They’ve been willing to work with us, although they have a strong perspective,” Crapo said.

Meantime, the group has stepped up its lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill, spending $906,000 last year compared to $270,000 in 2004.

The group’s interests range from protecting sea otters to conserving roadless areas, but its top goal this year is climate change. The group says it helped push the first climate-change bill from committee to the Senate floor in the 110th Congress.

Despite the collapse of that comprehensive bill, the group won creation of the National Global Warming and Wildlife Science Center for monitoring climate change within the U.S. Geological Survey as part of the fiscal 2008 spending bill for Interior. Now Defenders of Wildlife has proposed designating 5 percent of the federal money from the sale of emissions allowances under a cap-and-trade proposal before Congress for efforts to curb global warming. “If you’re going to have a good program, you need it backed up by science,” Schlickeisen said.

The group also wants to force major federal landholders — the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service — to behave more like the National Park Service by taking wildlife management more into account.

Defenders of Wildlife recruited Rep. Ron Kind , a co-chairman last year of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus, to sponsor the legislation as the group negotiated with interests such as Ducks Unlimited and state officials under the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.

“Given the large organization that they’ve been able to form, they were able to activate a lot of organizations and interest groups to get in touch with various offices,” said Kind, a Wisconsin Democrat who serves on the Natural Resources and Ways and Means committees.

The Obama administration is considered friendlier to the group’s causes than the Bush administration, but not on every subject. Environmental groups were disappointed with the Interior Department would not revoke a Bush administration rule that limits the ability to curb greenhouse gas emissions in order to protect polar bears, a threatened species.

“Just because Obama isn’t George Bush doesn’t mean his administration is going to be as pro-conservation as we would like,” Schlickeisen said. “Obviously we’re going to have to work hard there.”

Monday, May 11, 2009

Ranchers fight to keep grazing in Grant County

Ranchers and environmentalists have locked horns over cattle grazing for years. Now a battered economy and a looming court decision are fueling a full-on battle in Grant County.

On one side, ranchers and the county chairman say proposed grazing limits could deal a knockout punch to more than a dozen cattle operations and, because of job losses and lost tax revenue, county social services.

On the other side, an environmental group says wild steelhead are in decline because of stream bank damage caused by grazing cattle.

"The mood here is not good," says Mark Webb, chairman of Grant County commissioners in Canyon City. "A lot of livelihoods" ride on the pending ruling by U.S. District Judge Ancer Haggerty in Portland. A hearing in the case is scheduled for June 9.

The debate affects an eastern Oregon county that has twice the space of Delaware but just 7,500 residents. Grant County is so sparsely populated that it has only one stoplight and three fast-food restaurants, plus a one-night-a-week movie theater in an old Rebekah Lodge. Towns are tiny, with frontier-style buildings harking to the gold rush.

More than 60 percent of the county's land is federally owned, and the John Day River system has more miles designated as wild and scenic than any in the nation.

Unemployment at 18.8 percent in county

The recession has hit the county especially hard. The unemployment rate in March, according to figures by the Oregon Employment Department, was 18.8 percent, compared with 12.9 percent statewide and 9 percent nationwide.

At issue are six grazing allotments on U.S. Forest Service land. The allotments, all in the Malhuer National Forest, encompass about 250,000 acres across a vast tapestry of mountains, canyons, meadows and pine forests.

Three environmental groups, including the Bend-based Oregon Natural Desert Association, filed a request April 10 for an injunction that would banish cattle from the allotments.

Brent Fenty, the group's executive director, says damage in the allotments is severe and threatens the survival of native Middle Columbia steelhead, federally listed as threatened in 1999.

"Something needs to be done about it," he says.

Fenty says the environmental group has collected data over a decade that show steelhead runs far below historic levels.

17 ranches use six allotments

Webb, the county chairman, says 17 ranches use the six allotments and that long-term closures could drive at least half of them out of business, worsening unemployment. The drop in tax revenues, in turn, would shrink funds for social services, hurting even Blue Mountain Hospital in John Day, he says.

And Webb says an injunction could actually hurt steelhead habitat by shifting cattle to private ranchland, where overgrazing could occur along streams. On the ungrazed federal land, grass could grow out of control in summer, raising wildfire risk. And ranches could even be broken up, he says, resulting in homebuilding and loss of rangeland and habitat.

Environmentalists, he says, forget how much fish and wildlife habitat ranches provide.

Spencer Hovekamp, spokesman for the National Marine Fisheries Service in La Grande, says the injunction, if granted, would mean eight allotments in the Upper and Lower John Day River and its North Fork and Middle Fork subbasins would be closed to livestock. Two allotments were closed by a May 2008 ruling.

He traces the grazing debate to two decades of fighting over timber sales in national forests. Without logging, tree canopies have expanded, he says, shading out grass. Cattle migrate toward streams, he says, where grass is more plentiful.

He declined to comment on steelhead numbers, saying only that the fish are not recovered. He says it's possible to have both steelhead and cattle on the Malheur National Forest, though it may mean more fences and more cowboys tracking cattle on horseback.

The Five Rivers Grazing Permittees

Ranchers, meanwhile, have formed a legal defense fund to fight for cattle grazing: The Five Rivers Grazing Permittees. The group's 42 Grant County ranchers have assessed themselves $10,000 each for attorney fees, says co-chairman Ken Holliday of John Day.

Holliday, 53, says cattle are sometimes blamed for stream bank damage caused by elk and wild horses. He also says a rule prohibiting more than 10 percent stream bank disturbance on some allotments was grabbed out of the sky by the National Marine Fisheries Service. The rule couldn't be met even if no cattle were present, he says.

Environmentalists "are beating ranchers over the head and trying to put us out of business," he says. "I don't understand it."

In February, about 500 supporters showed up at a benefit auction at the Grant County Fairgrounds, raising $77,000 for ranchers' legal costs.

But as bills mount, Holliday says, ranchers may not be able to keep up the fight much longer.

-- Richard Cockle;

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Fed appeals court rules against ranchers

A federal appeals court in Denver has ruled that a group of Wyoming ranchers had no right to formal hearings before the U.S. Bureau of Land Management reduced their livestock grazing under federal permits.

Ranchers with the Smithsfork Grazing Association had sued the BLM and various government officials. The lawsuit challenged the federal agency's 2005 order to reduce grazing on the 91,000-acre Smithsfork Allotment located north and east of Cokeville, in southwestern Wyoming.

A three-judge panel of the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver on Tuesday upheld a Wyoming judge's earlier decision that ruled against the ranchers.

Several lawyers with the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington represented the BLM. Carol A. Statkus, assistant U.S. Attorney for the District of Wyoming also worked on the case. John Powell, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Wyoming, said Tuesday that Statkus had no comment.

Karen Budd-Falen, a Cheyenne lawyer, represented the grazing association. She did not immediately return a phone message seeking comment on the ruling on Tuesday.

Jonathan Ratner, director of the Wyoming office of the Western Watersheds Project in Pinedale, said Tuesday that his group has been following the dispute and is happy with the appeals court's ruling.

Ratner said there have been some improvements on the allotment since the BLM reduced grazing in the area. However, he said grazing is still causing major problems with streams in the area that support Bonneville cutthroat trout, a species that the BLM has listed as sensitive.

Ratner said he expects the issue of reducing grazing on the Smithsfork Allotment will now proceed to a federal hearing process. He said his group will continue to be involved in that.

"We'll be keeping a very careful eye on this whole process, because the Smithsfork area is one of the last few Bonneville trout populations left in Wyoming, and the BLM is doing really a stunningly poor job of protecting this species."

An attempt to reach John Christensen, field manager at the BLM's office in Kemmerer, on Tuesday was unsuccessful.

The New Mexico Cattle Growers' Association and New Mexico Federal Lands Council entered an appearance in the lawsuit and filed "friend of the court" briefs supporting the Smithsfork Grazing Association's position.

Caren Cowan, executive director of the New Mexico Cattle Growers' Association, said Tuesday that her group is deeply concerned with the appeals court decision and needs to review it further.

"We got involved because it had to do with the ability to administratively appeal decisions for grazing allotment owners," Cowan said. "That's a universal issue, whether you're in Wyoming, New Mexico or what state you're in.

"Allotment owners need to have the ability to appeal decisions, and feel like they have fairness as they're working with the agency," Cowan said.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

BLM Website Statement regarding Grazing Regulations

Following an adverse decision in Western Watersheds Project v. Kraayenbrink, the Bureau of Land Management is presently applying its livestock grazing regulations that were in effect immediately prior to July 12, 2006, with certain exceptions noted below. The grazing regulations in effect immediately prior to July 12, 2006, are found at 43 CFR Part 4100 (2005). Applying these regulations will not have any practical effect on the Bureau’s current management of livestock grazing on BLM-managed public lands.

On February 28, 2008, the U.S. District Court for the District of Idaho issued a Judgment in the Kraayenbrink decision, enjoining in all respects the BLM grazing regulations published at 71 FR 39402 (July 12, 2006). On June 15, 2007, the BLM issued an instruction memorandum (IM 2007-137) to its field offices advising them to not implement any changes of the grazing regulations promulgated on July 12, 2006. A revised instruction memorandum was published on April 20, 2009 (IM 2009-109).

The BLM has elected to apply the grazing regulations found in the 2005 edition of the Code of Federal Regulations at 43 CFR part 4100 (2005 grazing regulations) to grazing matters administered by the BLM on lands outside of Alaska, with the exception of regulations addressing conservation use, which have not been in use since they were held to be invalid in Public Lands Council v. Babbitt. Any future changes to the 2005 grazing regulations will be pursued in a new rulemaking proceeding. A copy of the regulations at 43 CFR part 4100 (2005) may be viewed on the Internet at:
For further information, contact Robert Bolton, (202) 452-7792.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Study: Grazing threatens wildlife habitat in West

Conservationists say livestock grazing poses a threat to a wide variety of fish and other wildlife across more than three-fourths of their dwindling habitats on federal land in the West.

Using satellite mapping and federal records, WildEarth Guardians began a study last year matching wildlife habitat and U.S. grazing allotments across more than 260 million acres of federal land in the West.

It includes practically all of the remaining habitat of the Greater sage grouse, a hen-sized game bird the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering adding to the list of threatened or endangered species in 11 Western states from California to Wyoming. The environmental group wants the bird protected.

"The results confirm - in graphic form - previous research finding that incessant, ubiquitous public lands grazing has contributed to the decline of native wildlife," concludes the report entitled "Western Wildlife Under Hoof." The report is scheduled to be released Friday.

The group said continued grazing in ever-shrinking habitat hampers the recovery of fish and wildlife and in some cases threatens them with extinction.

Cattle and sheep trample vegetation, damage soil, spread invasive weeds, spoil water and deprive native wildlife of forage, the report said. It notes that then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt said in 2005 that livestock grazing "is the most damaging use of public land."

Mark Salvo, WildEarth Guardians' grazing program specialist and author of the report, said the new data suggest livestock have "done more damage to the Earth than the chain saw and bulldozer combined."

Jeff Eisenberg, director of federal lands for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, criticized the findings as part of an effort to shut down grazing on federal lands.

"There's a number of environmental groups that have decided the best way to spend their time and the money of their funders is to eliminate the families and communities that have made the West what it is today," he told AP in an e-mail. "These groups don't deserve a dignified response."

Don Kirby, president of the Society for Range Management and director of North Dakota State University's School of Natural Resource Sciences, said livestock grazing is an important part of a "landscape management toolbox" that can be used to reduce wildfires and improve wildlife habitat.

"Western rangelands and the wildlife species that live there have coexisted with grazing by large herbivores for tens of thousands of years," Kirby said.

The report found livestock grazing is permitted on 91 percent of the Greater sage grouse's habitat and that grazing operations are active on 72 percent of the habitat. Grazing is active on 55 percent of the federal range of the Gunnison sage grouse and is permitted on 84 percent of it.

Likewise, grazing is permitted on about 80 percent of public land in the historic range of several cutthroat trout species, including 88 percent of the Lahontan and 76 percent of the Bonneville.

It's also permitted on about 75 percent of the federal habitat of four species of prairie dogs.

"The species included in our report are representative of the hundreds of wildlife species that are threatened by public lands grazing," said Salvo, whose group has offices in Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona.

The bulk of the federal land studied is managed by the Bureau of Land Management, which issued grazing permits and leases to 15,799 ranchers and other operators covering 128 million acres of U.S. land in 2006.

BLM spokesman Jeff Krauss said the agency has not fully reviewed the report but maintains "well-managed grazing provides numerous ecological and environmental benefits."

Among other things, WildEarth Guardians recommends buying out permits from ranchers and others willing to remove their livestock from grazing land.

"There is a greater economic value in non-consumptive uses of public land - hunting, fishing, birdwatching, hiking, camping - than livestock grazing," the report said.

The Nevada Department of Wildlife shares concerns about dwindling wildlife populations but believes there is a place for grazing on public land, spokesman Chris Healy said.

If ranchers end up selling their land, it could be subdivided and lead to development even more problematic for wildlife, he said.

"It behooves us to get everybody who uses the land to be part of the solution and that's what we've been trying to do with the sage grouse. If one sector or user of the land feels like they are being ganged up on, the odds of coming up with a solution that will work are not good," he said.