Ranchers will be able to turn out cattle on seven allotments in Oregon's Malheur National Forest as part of a ruling issued Monday, June 15, by a federal judge in Portland.
U.S. District Court Judge Ancer Haggerty ruled that grazing will be allowed in the allotments as long as the U.S. Forest Service follows a strict regimen of monitoring, fencing and cattle management.
The ruling lifts a ban on grazing in two allotments, Murderers Creek and Lower Middle Fork, issued by Haggerty in May 2008.
Ranchers who rely on the national forest for grazing were expected to turn out their cattle on Friday, June 19.
Environmentalist groups involved in the lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service had requested that Haggerty completely prohibit cattle grazing in eight allotments in the national forest.
The U.S. Forest Service requested limited grazing on all but the Long Creek allotment, which the agency agreed to totally rest this year.
In his ruling, Haggerty said the agency had demonstrated that its grazing management plans for 2009 would not jeopardize threatened steelhead in the area.
Haggerty said he wasn't confident that the U.S. Forest Service would be able to fully enforce the plan.
"Due to the Forest Service's repeated failures to carry out planned mitigation and monitoring measures on the (Malheur National Forest), this court finds it prudent to enter an order ensuring the implementation of the Forest Service's proposals," according to the ruling.
If an allotment is found to be out of compliance with plans aimed at protecting threatened steelhead - for example, if cattle alter stream banks beyond the allowable level - then grazing in the affected area must stop for the rest of the year.
"If adequate mitigation and monitoring do not occur, the court may end the grazing season early with a full injunction," Haggerty said the ruling.
The U.S. Forest Service will need to show its compliance with grazing management plans in a report by July 20, and in another report at the end of the season.
Haggerty noted that the plaintiffs - Oregon Natural Desert Association, Center for Biological Diversity and Western Watersheds Project - had provided some evidence that grazing would harm steelhead.
Haggerty said that statements made by one of their main witnesses, consultant Christopher Christie, "have been shown to be less than fully trustworthy."
Testimony from expert witnesses summoned by the U.S. Forest Service, on the other hand, "has established that the grazing proposals for 2009, if properly executed, will adequately protect riparian habitat."
During a hearing Friday, June 12, fish and stream experts countered allegations that grazing causes permanent damage to threatened steelhead habitat.
"The conditions being maintained within this space have stayed the same or are improving," said Brett Roper, national aquatic monitoring program leader for the U.S. Forest Service.
The portions of stream that have been adversely affected by cattle comprise a very small portion of the steelhead's total habitat, so it's difficult to see how these sites would cause irreparable harm to the species, Roper said.
"Not only am I not worried about these sites, I'm not worried about a larger subset of sites used by fish," he said. "If these areas don't cause a lot of concern, then other areas don't cause a lot of concern, either."