MELBA, Idaho — A local rancher has donated a registered Angus heifer that he will sell at auction to raise money for a pending legal battle over an issue industry leaders fear could significantly reduce public lands grazing in the West.
South Mountain Ranch co-owner Matt Duckett hopes to sell the animal several times during his ranch’s annual production sale Feb. 11. He will donate the proceeds to help offset legal costs in the so-called Owyhee 68 case.
U.S. District Court Judge B. Lynn Winmill in 1999 ordered the BLM’s Owyhee field office in southwestern Idaho to rewrite 68 grazing permits that it renewed in 1997. Winmill’s decision to void the permits was the result of a lawsuit by Western Watersheds Project, which argued that the permits weren’t properly analyzed according to the National Environmental Policy Act.
The new permits were issued throughout 2013 and in most cases reduce grazing by 30-50 percent, according to Duckett and Idaho Cattle Association officials.
“(Ranchers) basically have to cut their cow herds in half to meet the requirements,” Duckett said. “Most businesses can’t cut their revenue in half and stay in operation.”
The decisions are being appealed by the ICA and Owyhee Cattlemen’s Association. WWP is also appealing them and the grazing reductions won’t go into effect until the appeals are resolved.
The 68 permits include 120 grazing allotments and affect hundreds of thousands of acres of land.
While the impact to Owyhee ranchers is significant, the BLM’s decisions could also set precedence for new grazing permits throughout the West, said ICA Executive Vice President Wyatt Prescott.
Prescott said ICA officials believe BLM reduced grazing to try to avoid litigation from WWP.
“If that is allowed to happen, the BLM could apply that model to many more permit renewals to come,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons we’ve taken such a strong stance on this issue.”
Heather Feeney, a spokeswoman for BLM’s Idaho office, said the agency did not base its decisions on an effort to avoid litigation.
Winmill ruled that the field office didn’t adequately analyze the permits under NEPA and ordered it to go back and conduct a NEPA analysis in the process of considering the renewal of the permits, she said.
“That was clear direction,” she said. “BLM has to correctly apply federal law. We confidently believe that’s what we’ve done here.”
ICA President Jared Brackett said BLM officials did numerous things wrong when re-writing the permits, including not properly considering the economic impact their decisions would have on the region, which is required by federal law.
He said BLM officials also didn’t properly analyze requests for improvements that could mitigate some of the agency’s concerns.
“This could be so devastating and set a precedence over the entire West,” Brackett said. “That’s why we felt it was necessary to get involved.”
The ranch is located at 13584 State Highway 78 in Melba. For more information, call Duckett at (208) 230-5650.