GREAT FALLS, Mont. (AP) -- The Bureau of Land Management must consider a wider range of grazing alternatives, including some that provide more protections for public land, when it reviews permits in the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled.
Western Watersheds Project, which brought the lawsuit challenging the overall grazing guidelines in the Breaks as well as an individual allotment called Woodhawk, said the decision is significant because many national monuments across the West share language that grazing may continue. The ruling provides guidance that considering changes is necessary when the fate of specially-protected resources are at stake, the group said.
"For the first time, in all the monuments across the West, cattle grazing and allotment plans will not be the old status quo," said Dyrck Van Hyning of Great Falls, a long-time monument supporter, who predicted the decision on the Woodhawk allotment would affect grazing allotments elsewhere.
The BLM noted that the ruling, while finding deficiencies with the Woodhawk review, upheld its overall grazing guidelines in the monument management plan, which Western Watershed also had argued were flawed.
"We're very pleased they supported us in the management plan," said Mike Kania, the BLM's monument manager, referring to the judge's support of the overall guidelines. "Western Watershed argued they weren't sufficient to protect the objects of the monument. The court disagreed and said, 'no,' that they are."
At the core of the dispute is the level of land protections that should be required in the 12-year-old national monument, which was created by presidential proclamation in 2001.
The monument recognizes the scenic beauty, historical significance and geological and biological importance of the 149-mile stretch of Missouri River and adjacent lands, but it also said that cattle grazing could continue.
The BLM, citing the cattle grazing provision in the monument proclamation, adopted existing guidelines into the new monument management plan.
Western Watersheds, a not-for-profit, sued in state District Court in 2009 and appealed to the 9th Circuit after the lower court sided with the BLM. It argued BLM policies ignored detrimental impacts of livestock grazing on monument objects, especially cottonwood forests and sage-rouse habitat. And it alleged that the BLM's interpretation of the monument proclamation violated federal environmental laws and the monument proclamation by elevating multiple-use above protecting the land.
In its decision, handed down June 7, the appeals court affirmed that the BLM reasonably interpreted the monument proclamation in not making major changes to grazing management after the monument was designated.
Conversely, the appeals court reversed the District Court's decision involving the Woodhawk grazing allotment, and said the BLM violated the National Environmental Policy Act by not offering enough alternatives including those prohibiting or reducing grazing.
The monument proclamation, the judges wrote, changed the legal landscape of the permitting process for individual allotments. There is now a heightened obligation to analyze fully other "reasonable grazing alternatives that may better protect monument objects," the judges wrote.
"BLM cannot ignore the proclamation's goal of protecting monument objects when it determines the reasonable range of alternatives for National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review of site-specific actions," the judges wrote.
Woodhawk is a large grazing allotment northeast of Winifred with 3,120 AUMs. An AUM is enough forage to support a cow and calf for a month. The 10-year grazing permit came up for renewal in 2008 and the BLM concluded renewing it would have no significant impact.
In its decision, the appeals court sent the Woodhawk allotment back to the District Court to issue an order requiring the BLM to remedy the deficiencies.
Glenn Monahan, a Fort Benton-based canoe outfitter and plaintiff represented by Western Watersheds, said the group recognizes the ranching industry's contribution to Montana's economy. But he added that there are public lands, such as sensitive riparian areas, where cattle grazing may be incompatible with robust native plant and animal communities.
"When President Clinton issued the monument proclamation, he specifically included language to protect the Upper Missouri's magnificent, but threatened cottonwood forests, and the court has affirmed BLM's responsibility in upholding this provision," Monahan said.