Judge rules nearly 1 million acres in Idaho off limits to grazing

Posted: Friday, August 05, 2005

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The Bureau of Land Management is telling ranchers to remove thousands of head of cattle from nearly a million acres of public land in southern Idaho after a federal judge found the agency addressed environmental impacts from grazing in a ‘‘patchwork-quilt manner.’’

‘‘We are working with ranchers to discuss how to implement the judge’s order, which necessitates the removal of the livestock,’’ Cheryle Zwang, Idaho BLM spokeswoman, said Wednesday. ‘‘We don’t know if it’s going to be under appeal, but we are trying to comply with the order.’’

U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill ruled last week in favor of conservationists who had sued BLM, arguing the agency violated federal regulations when it authorized increased grazing in the Jarbidge Resource Area, an expanse of rangeland southwest of Twin Falls that stretches to the state’s southern border with Nevada.

Winmill ruled approximately 800,000 acres of the 1.7 million-acre resource area is no longer open to livestock grazing because BLM did not adequately determine the impact to sage grouse habitat in the 28 livestock grazing allotments that are authorized for use by 11 ranchers or permit holders.

The judge wrote that BLM’s examination of increased grazing impacts on just half of the 1.7 million acres through an ‘‘incremental allotment-by-allotment approach’’ did not give the bureau enough data to determine whether more cattle would accelerate the decline of sage grouse numbers in the area.

‘‘That question cannot be answered because nobody has looked at the big picture here,’’ Winmill wrote.

He ordered a halt to all livestock grazing on the allotments until BLM completes a full-fledged environmental impact statement that looks at the overall impact of increased grazing in the Jarbidge on sage grouse habitat and populations.

Lloyd Knight of the Idaho Cattle Association said ranchers are scrambling to find ways of feeding herds that would normally pasture through the summer on the public lands now been declared off-limits.

‘‘Obviously, they are very disappointed by the decision, very frustrated,’’ said Knight.

But conservationists said BLM should have done a better job of analyzing potential impacts to rangeland health and sage grouse numbers before approving more cattle to graze the range.

‘‘We aren’t putting ma and pa rancher out of business here,’’ said Katie Fite of the Hailey-based Western Watersheds Project, which brought the suit against BLM last year in U.S. District Court. ‘‘It’s in the long-term interest of everybody that the lands in the Jarbidge have healthy sagebrush and wildlife on them.’’

The BLM had argued it only increased grazing levels on the Jarbidge allotments by 8 percent, but Winmill said the agency actually had boosted grazing by 83 percent this season. He also noted that BLM’s own data show the number of sage grouse is declining dramatically in the Jarbidge area. Earlier this year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided not to list the bird under the Endangered Species Act.

‘‘I think this is the first time a court has halted grazing because of its impact on sage grouse,’’ said Laird Lucas, a Boise attorney for the Western Watersheds Project. ‘‘The court is very clear that grazing needs to stop and to stop right now.’’

If BLM does not appeal Winmill’s ruling, it could take more than a year before an environmental impact statement on grazing in the Jarbidge would be completed and a new grazing allocation decision issued, barring any further administrative appeals.

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