A federal judge is allowing an Oregon rancher and county government to intervene as defendants in an environmentalist lawsuit against grazing in the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest.
The complaint was filed earlier this year by the Greater Hells Canyon Council environmental nonprofit, which claimed the U.S. Forest Service insufficiently studied the impacts of grazing on the Spalding’s catchfly, a threatened plant.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Patricia Sullivan has ruled the Forest Service may not adequately represent the concerns of McClaran Ranch, which grazes cattle in the forest, or Wallowa County, which relies on agriculture for its tax base and economy.
The ranch and the county have distinct interests that may be impaired by the lawsuit and thus are entitled to intervene in the litigation, Sullivan said.
According to the complaint, livestock trample the Spalding’s catchfly and consume its flowers and seeds, thereby hindering reproduction of the perennial plant, which has been protected under the Endangered Species Act since 2001.
Cattle also introduce and spread invasive weed species that compete with the Spalding’s catchfly, whose populations are particularly at risk of displacement due to their tendency to “clump,” the plaintiff argues.
The environmental group alleges the Forest Service violated the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to study eliminating grazing from areas where the Spalding’s catchfly is vulnerable to grazing, among other claims.
The Forest Service has filed an answer to the lawsuit denying violations of NEPA and other federal statutes and arguing the complaint should be dismissed partly because the nonprofit failed to raise its objections during administrative proceedings.
In his request to intervene, rancher Scott McClaran said his family has raised livestock in the region for nearly 100 years and has developed strategies with the Forest Service to minimize negative effects on the Spalding’s catchfly and other native resources.
The ranch depends on grazing within the four allotments of the 44,000-acre “Lower Imnaha Rangeland Analysis” project area that’s at the center of the lawsuit.
“A decision that limits, restricts or prohibits livestock grazing on some or all of these allotments would hinder the environmental benefits from the rotational grazing among pastures on the ranch and allotments,” he said. “It would also negatively impact the economic viability of McClaran Ranch and threaten the ability of the McClaran family to maintain the ranching lifestyle that has been central to my family for generations.”
The lawsuit could set a legal precedent affecting grazing in other areas where the Spalding’s catchfly grows, which could seriously impair Wallowa County’s economy, according to a declaration from Todd Nash, a rancher and county commissioner.
“Such an economic impact would affect the county’s ability to maintain the quality of the services the county must provide to ensure the health, safety, and welfare of its residents,” he said.