Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Sheep grazing to proceed on northern allotments

Public comments sought on Sawtooth grazing plan revisions

Express Staff Writer

The Sawtooth National Forest has just released for public comment a draft supplement to its North Sheep Final Environmental Impact Statement, which U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill rejected in early 2006. Winmill ruled that the original sheep grazing plan, which covers four separate allotments on portions of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area and Sawtooth National Forest, violated federal law. Photo by Mountain Express

Sheep grazing north of Ketchum is set to proceed as originally planned, under a revised draft Environmental Impact Statement recently released by the Sawtooth National Forest.

It's been 21 months since U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill rejected the forest's proposed management plan for four grazing allotments in the upper Big Wood River and Salmon River drainages, to the north and south of Galena Summit. They are the Baker Creek, North Fork-Boulder, Fisher Creek and Smiley Creek grazing allotments. Collectively, they cover a total of 147,200 acres within the Smoky, Boulder and White Cloud mountain ranges in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area and Ketchum District of the Sawtooth National Forest.

The permitees on the four grazing allotments are John Faulkner, Lava Lake Land and Livestock, and Dennis Kowitz.

The allotments contain habitat for bull trout, steelhead trout and Chinook salmon, which are listed as threatened or endangered under the federal 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.

The Sawtooth National Forest instituted the North Sheep grazing plan in October 2004.

In a strongly worded rebuke of the grazing management plan handed down in February 2006, Winmill said the North Sheep Final Environmental Impact Statement violated federal law by failing to fully analyze the capability of the lands to support grazing. Winmill required the Forest Service to perform additional analysis on what are called management indicator species, specifically bull trout and sage grouse. He also required the agency to fully explain its adaptive management strategy, which allows it to adapt grazing patterns to changing environmental factors, among other things.

Since Winmill's ruling, Sawtooth National Forest officials have worked to come up with a series of revisions. On Friday, Nov. 8., the revisions were released to the public in the form of a draft supplement to the original EIS.

The supplement doesn't propose any changes to the plan. Rather, it provides additional analysis that Forest Service officials say justifies the original plan's authorization of continued grazing on the four allotments.

"Under the proposed action, grazing closures and adaptive management strategies would effectively move sagebrush communities towards desired condition, thereby contributing to the restoration of lands in less than satisfactory condition for MIS (management indicator species)," the draft supplement's summary states.

Winmill's 2006 ruling came after Hailey-based Western Watersheds Project and Dr. Randall Hermann of Ketchum filed a lawsuit against the grazing plan. In an interview, Western Watersheds Executive Director Jon Marvel said his group is still reviewing the supplemental EIS, but his initial impression is that it is still deficient. He said the group's main objection is to the plan's treatment of areas deemed vulnerable to damage from grazing that lie between those deemed suitable for grazing.

"Nowhere in the document do they assess the impacts on those non-capable lands," Marvel said. "(Ranchers) have to at least trail across them, which means there will be some, if not a lot, of grazing there."

The release of the draft supplement has initiated a 45-day public comment period, during which the Sawtooth National Forest will accept comments only on the merits of the proposed revisions.

Copies of the 124-page draft supplement to the North Sheep FEIS are available on the Sawtooth National Forest Web site at Paper or CD-ROM copies may also be obtained by contacting the Ketchum Ranger Station at 622-5371.

Following the comment period, the Sawtooth National Forest will release a final EIS, which is subject to appeal within the Forest Service. If either side is dissatisfied with the result of the appeal, the plan could end up back in court.

"Judging from this (supplemental EIS), I think it's very likely that it will," Marvel said.

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