More than 450,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management land south of Twin Falls will be free from grazing for the foreseeable future, due to a recent decision by a federal judge.
Chief Judge B. Lynn Winmill of the U.S. District Court for Idaho ruled on April 13 to uphold a previous decision that forbade livestock grazing on 28 grazing allotments on public land in the Jarbidge area. The ruling was in favor of plaintiff Western Watersheds Project, based in Hailey.
The move was lauded by conservationists, who say grazing has damaged sage-grouse habitat.
"Closing these allotments to livestock grazing makes sense in light of the collapse of the sage-grouse populations across the Jarbidge," said Todd Tucci, a lawyer with Advocates for the West who represented Western Watersheds during the case.
Randy Smith, regional game manager for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, said grouse numbers have been dropping steadily since 2006.
"I wouldn't use the word collapsing," he said, "but we've seen about a 50 percent drop in sage grouse numbers in the Magic Valley region."
Smith said the department isn't sure what's causing the decline, though West Nile virus was likely a factor. He said wildfires in the Jarbidge area have damaged habitat and caused declines in the population there that exceed regional averages.
However, he said, properly managed livestock grazing is neither good nor bad for grouse habitat.
Though the prohibition against grazing in this area has been in effect since 2005, cattle have been allowed to graze in the area under an interim agreement among Western Watersheds Project, the bureau and the affected ranchers.
Grazing was allowed to continue under the condition that the bureau reissue an environmental impact statement and a resource management plan for the area, in compliance with federal law. The bureau has not reissued either document.
Winmill's decision requires ranchers to remove cattle from the allotments by May 3. Between 3,000 and 4,000 cattle are involved.
Katherine Wutz: email@example.com
What about the airport?
A recent decision to block grazing and protect grouse habitat highlights the potential for sage grouse to block construction of the proposed new Blaine County Regional Airport. The preferred site for the new airport, known as Site 10A, is in a section of sage grouse and pygmy rabbit habitat in extreme southern Blaine County. Randy Smith, regional game manager for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, said a Feb. 22 flyover of a 6-by-8-mile segment of the site revealed 541 wintering grouse. "That's certainly a good number of birds," Smith said. "[The site] is important to them." However, Smith said grouse don't always winter there. Last year, a similar flyover didn't reveal any birds. Smith said that may have been due to deeper snow that would have covered the sagebrush that the grouse use for shelter. The impact of grouse on airport plans for the site remains uncertain. Smith said the department will continue to examine the area, but that he has no idea what the presence of grouse in February would mean for the airport. "We're still trying to answer that question for ourselves," he said.