Friday, February 10, 2006

Judge rules against Forest Service in local grazing allotment case

Express Staff Writer

In a ruling with potentially far-reaching implications for public lands grazing, U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill on Tuesday ruled against the U.S. Forest Service, saying the agency's sheep grazing management plan for four separate grazing allotments in the Sawtooth National Forest violates federal law.

Winmill said the management plan violates both the National Forest Management Act (NFMA) and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) by failing to analyze at a site-specific level the capability of the lands to support domestic livestock grazing.

In his written ruling, Winmill cited five sets of criteria the Forest Service uses to determine whether lands are incapable of supporting livestock grazing. The five criteria are: lands that are inaccessible to livestock, will not produce at least 200 pounds of forage per acre, are not within 1.2 miles of water, have unstable, highly erodible soils, or are on steep slopes.

The Forest Service violated federal law when it failed to adequately assess the capability of the land to support grazing based on the five criteria, said Laurie Rule, an attorney for Advocates for the West, which is representing Hailey-based Western Watersheds Project and Dr. Randall Hermann of Ketchum, the plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed May 13, 2005. "They have to do this capability analysis in a site-specific manner," Rule said.

The October 2004 decision by the Forest Service that led to the plaintiffs' lawsuit allowed sheep grazing to continue, but with some modifications, on the Baker Creek, North Fork-Boulder, Fisher Creek and Smiley Creek allotments on forest lands near Ketchum. Collectively, the four allotments cover approximately 147,000 acres in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area and Ketchum District of the Sawtooth National Forest.

In their lawsuit, the plaintiffs claimed the Forest Service didn't assess the environmental impacts of sheep grazing within the SNRA and surrounding forest lands, and is allowing excessive grazing that will continue to harm fish and wildlife and conflict with recreational use inside the area.

The allotments contain habitat for bull trout, steelhead trout and chinook salmon, which are listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act, as well as for sage grouse, wolves and bighorn sheep. In addition, several of the streams in the allotments are eligible for designation as Wild and Scenic Rivers.

Winmill also agreed with the plaintiffs' claim that the Forest Service has failed to adequetely consider the impacts grazing has had on the habitat for sage grouse, pileated woodpecker and bull trout, as well as to come up with remedies to reverse those negative impacts. The Forest Service considers these three species "management indicator species."

Possibly the most significant part of that portion of the ruling concerns sage grouse, Rule said. She said Winmill agreed that the Forest Service hasn't properly identified which lands used by the sage grouse are in an unsatisfactory condition. "They have to do the capability analysis for the sage grouse," Rule said.

For now, the full impact of Winmill's ruling remains unclear, she said, adding that Winmill's ruling was only on the legal merits of the plaintiffs' lawsuit. "He ruled that there were some flaws in their (the U.S. Forest Service's) decision," Rule said. "We were very happy with the decision."

The next step will be for the parties involved—including the plaintiffs, the U.S. Forest Service and the interveners acting on behalf of the grazing permitees—to sit down and come up with a remedy that either amends or replaces the current management plan, Rule said. The permitees on the four grazing allotments are John Faulkner, Lava Lake Land and Livestock and Dennis Kowitz.

Jean McNeil, spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney's Office, which is representing the U.S. Forest Service in the case, said attorneys working on the case had just received copies of the ruling on Thursday. "It's still under review," McNeil said.

Since the late 1800s, range in the Stanley Basin and upper Big Wood River drainage have provided summer grazing for bands of sheep following seasonal patterns of movement through the region.

Sheep numbers peaked in the early 1900s, and grazing damage was widely evident. The Forest Service established grazing allotments in 1907 to begin controlling grazing and the associated impacts.

In 1907, 364,000 sheep were permitted on the forest, primarily using the north end, which represents the current configuration of the forest, and Ketchum was one of the largest sheep shipping railheads in North America.

Sheep numbers on the forest have steadily declined since the early 1900s. Their numbers are currently about 24,900, a 93 percent reduction from historic peaks.

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