A federal court decision handed down Monday could have far-reaching effects on how the BLM manages livestock grazing within sage-grouse habitat.
Because of a court-ordered settlement, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must decide by the end of 2015 whether to list greater sage grouse under the federal Endangered Species Act.
Idaho District Judge B. Lynn Winmill’s recent decision was in response to a lawsuit brought by Hailey-based Western Watersheds Project over the renewal of grazing permits by the BLM’s Burley Field Office. The permits were renewed even though the BLM had concluded that livestock grazing had damaged riparian areas and food sources for sage grouse.
The decision addressed the BLM’s reliance on a 2003 law, passed by Congress as a rider to an appropriations act, which allows renewals of grazing permits before the agency conducts an environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act. Since 2005, the Burley Field Office has used the rider to renew grazing permits for 168 of 200 allotments without doing an environmental review.
“BLM should use this as an opportunity to revisit the impacts that livestock grazing is having on sage grouse.”
Advocates for the West
“The BLM was using that to, in effect, exempt grazing from all environmental laws,” said Todd Tucci, senior attorney with Advocates for the West, which brought the suit on behalf of Western Watersheds Project. “The BLM can postpone its environmental review under NEPA, but it cannot ignore its management responsibilities to protect sage grouse.”
Winmill ruled that the rider does not exempt the BLM from requirements of the Federal Lands Policy and Management Act, which requires multiple-use management and the completion of resource management plans. Winmill stated that the BLM is obliged to consider ongoing environmental degradation and to comply with its own rules on improving rangeland health.
Though the decision applies only to the Burley Field Office, which covers a large area in south-central Idaho, Western Watersheds Executive Director Travis Bruner said he was “hopeful that this will have broader implications across BLM lands.”
Cheryl Zwang, spokeswoman for the BLM in Idaho, said the agency is still reviewing the decision and cannot yet comment on its implications.
Winmill also ruled that when the BLM does conduct an environmental analysis for permits that have been renewed, NEPA requires it to take cumulative impacts into consideration and to consider a no-grazing alternative. His decision states that the BLM did not consider a no-grazing alternative “because, according to BLM, its implementation would not meet the underlying purpose and need for the action to review/modify grazing permits authorizing livestock grazing.”
The decision remanded the matter to the BLM but did not order a halt to grazing.
Winmill’s decision was the second of two that involved several grazing allotments as representative cases after Western Watersheds challenged about 600 BLM decisions regarding sage-grouse protection on 40 million acres in Idaho and Nevada. An earlier decision, addressing grazing management by the BLM’s Owyhee and Jarbidge field offices in southwest Idaho, came to similar conclusions, though Tucci called the recent order “more emphatic and more clear.”
“BLM should use this as an opportunity to revisit the impacts that livestock grazing is having on sage grouse,” he said.