Ranchers and the federal government have prevailed against an environmentalist lawsuit that claimed livestock grazing destroys fish habitat in Idaho’s Salmon-Challis National Forest.
The Western Watersheds Project, an environmental group, filed the complaint in 2015, accusing the U.S. Forest Service of approving grazing on four allotments in violation of federal forest management law.
The lawsuit specifically pointed to degradation of streams occupied by whitefish, short-nose sculpin and paiute sculpin, which are not endangered or threatened species but have still experienced major population declines in recent decades.
A group of about 15 ranch families who rely on the four allotments intervened as defendants in the case.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Ronald Bush has now dismissed the case, rejecting the plaintiff’s arguments that the Forest Service acted “arbitrarily and capriciously” by authorizing grazing.
“Having made a close examination of the record, the court is satisfied that the picture of wholesale habitat degradation painted by Western Watersheds simply does not square with the evidence,” Bush said.
Just because many streams do not meet “riparian management objectives” in the four allotments does not mean that restricting grazing is justified, particularly since those waterways would likely be degraded without livestock on the landscape, he said.
“If the potential for fish habitat degradation compelled the curtailment or discontinuation of grazing, then grazing would be disallowed everywhere,” Bush said.
However, end-of-season reports about the impacts of grazing don’t back up the environmental group’s allegations of “rampant and flagrant violations of permit conditions,” he said.
Riparian management objectives are intended to measure progress in restoring stream health but they’re not “absolute requirements” that must be met in every waterway, the ruling said.
Likewise, although ranchers fell short of meeting some permit conditions, they mostly complied with conditions for grass and shrub consumption by livestock, Bush said.
While “instances of noncompliance” are relevant to Forest Service’s decision to re-authorize grazing permits, the judge said he’s “not persuaded that the instances of noncompliance contained in such an extensive administrative record are representative of a pervasive, chronic history of non-compliance.”
While it’s true that sediment levels in many streams are excessive in the area, the Forest Service has found that roads are the biggest contributor to the problem, he said.
Factors other than grazing — including mining, vegetation removal, recreational activities and wildfires — also cause stream sedimentation, Bush said.
Though the ranchers and the Forest Service won many key points in the ruling, the judge disagreed with their argument that the federal strategy for conserving inland fish, known as INFISH, doesn’t apply to the allotments in question.
It’s clear from the Forest Service’s own deliberations that the strategy was intended to “provide uniform protection for native inland fish across all affected forest lands,” he said.