Friday, January 14, 2011

BLM ordered to reconsider permit renewal

Hailey group revels in legal victory


By KATHERINE WUTZ
Express Staff Writer


The BLM was recently ordered by a U.S. district judge to reconsider grazing permits issued on 48,000 acres of public land in the Pahsimeroi River watershed, seen above. According to the judge’s ruling, the bureau ignored the impact of grazing on federally protected bull trout. Express graphic by Tony Barriatua.

A U.S. district judge last week ordered the BLM to re-evaluate grazing permits on 48,000 acres in the Pashimeroi River watershed east of Challis.

U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge ruled on Jan. 5 that the bureau had not considered all possible alternatives to renewing the permits and had ignored the presence of endangered bull trout in the area.

"This is an important victory," said Jon Marvel, director of Hailey-based Western Watersheds Project.

Marvel said he was pleased but not surprised by the judge's ruling.

"We've raised this issue before and won before, but not quite as clearly as this one," he said. "We had the better legal argument."

Western Watersheds challenged the bureau in court to overturn the grazing permit renewals, claiming the bureau had failed to address impacts on endangered bull trout in the area and did not consider all alternatives to permit renewal.

The bureau renewed the grazing permits following an environmental assessment meant to determine the impacts of continued grazing on the land.

Calling the BLM's decision "arbitrary and capricious," Lodge overturned the permit approvals and ordered the bureau to revise its analysis before making another decision.

Marvel said it's still possible that the permits could be renewed, but said he hopes the bureau will change its decision.

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"We hope the BLM will act in a chastened manner," he said.

BLM Public Affairs Specialist Kris Long said the bureau's attorneys were reviewing the decision and she could not comment on the case.

Lodge ruled that the BLM's assessment did not include the impacts of no grazing or limited grazing. Instead, it only considered what would happen if it renewed or increased grazing.

The BLM also stated in its assessment that the four allotments in question contained no threatened or endangered species.

Two of the bureau's own studies, one released in 1999 and one in October 2008, identify the Pahsimeroi watershed and one of the grazing allotments in particular as bull trout habitat. Bull trout have been an endangered species since 1998.

"[The BLM] failed to consider existing data with which it was well-acquainted ... [and] failed to disclose essential information to the public," Lodge wrote in his ruling.

The bureau had called this oversight a "mistake" and had offered to add the data to its assessment without re-evaluating its decision.

Lodge dismissed that offer, citing the need for public comment and a complete re-evaluation.

"When, as here, BLM disregards the law, it disregards the public interest and undermines its own credibility," Lodge wrote.

The bureau has one year to revise and supplement its assessment and either reissue or reconsider its decision.

Marvel said a "fair" analysis of all alternatives would show definitive benefits to ceasing grazing on all four allotments.

This victory for Western Watersheds follows another legal triumph in July, when the conservation group challenged the BLM's construction of fences and other grazing equipment on another parcel of public land only four miles from one of the allotments addressed in Lodge's decision.

Katherine Wutz: kwutz@mtexpress.com




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