The federal government has agreed to pay an environmental group $305,000 for attorney fees in a lawsuit over grazing in southeast Oregon.
The financial settlement between the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the Oregon Natural Desert Association concludes several years of litigation over the 500,000-acre Louse Canyon area.
ONDA wanted to shut down grazing in the area, which is managed by BLM, due to alleged harms to the greater sage grouse, a candidate for federal protection under the Endangered Species Act.
The group also demanded the tearing down of fences and shutting down of cattle watering structures in the Louse Canyon Geographic Management Area, claiming they disturbed the bird’s habitat.
ONDA claimed that hoof prints from cattle will create puddles that serve as breeding grounds for mosquitos that carry the West Nile virus.
During the course of the litigation, a federal judge dismissed the environmental group’s complaint only to have it revived by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2011.
On remand, U.S. District Judge Michael Mosman agreed with ONDA that the BLM’s 2010 management plans for Louse Canyon violated environmental law and ordered the agency to conduct further studies.
The plan had called for additional fencing and pipelines in the area.
Even so, the judge allowed grazing to continue in the area under permits approved during a previous BLM management plan. The group appealed this decision to the 9th Circuit but it was upheld earlier this year.
The 9th Circuit also held that an injunction against grazing in Louse Canyon was unnecessary, in part because prohibiting the practice had no effect on the sage grouse in a portion of the area.
Some evidence actually indicated that grazing seemed to improve conditions for the species, the 9th Circuit held.
As for cattle hoof prints causing an outbreak of West Nile virus, the 9th Circuit found this possibility “too remote.”
“An outbreak requires the presence of a complex set of conditions, but the record did not indicate that these conditions were likely to be present,” the ruling said.
Court documents indicate that ONDA and BLM engaged in extensive negotiations in the months following the 9th Circuit opinion and ultimately agreed on $305,000 in attorney fees and other costs.
In another case over grazing in Oregon’s Malheur National Forest, the U.S. Forest Service objected to ONDA’s request for attorney fees, calling it “prodigious” and “excessive.”
However, a federal judge rejected the Forest Service’s arguments in August and awarded the environmental group $1.25 million.