Cattle will be allowed while agency revises its analysis
By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
A federal agency unlawfully permitted grazing on Idaho public lands by ignoring the potentially negative effect on the threatened bull trout, according to a federal judge.
"When, as here, the BLM disregards the law, it disregards the public interest and undermines its own credibility," the judge said.
However, the judge has granted a reprieve to ranchers who rely on Idaho's Pahsimeroi River Valley for grazing, as his ruling allows the practice to continue for at least another year.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management's environmental analysis of grazing on the 45,000 acres was incomplete because the agency mistakenly concluded bull trout weren't present on one of the four allotments in question, according to the ruling.
"BLM cannot make informed decisions if it does not consider all relevant information at its disposal," U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge said. "Nor can the public evaluate BLM's decision-making without being fully informed."
The four grazing permits were initially renewed in 2008, but that decision was opposed in court by the Western Watersheds Project environmentalist group.
The agency acknowledged it had erroneously overlooked the bull trout's presence.
Shortly after the permits were renewed, a BLM fisheries technician discovered several redds, or bull trout egg nests, within a creek on the allotment.
Even so, the BLM said the mistake was harmless because it had considered the effects of grazing on the Westslope cutthroat trout, which served as a proxy for the bull trout.
That argument was rejected by Lodge because the two fish species have different habitat requirements.
As for the other three allotments in question, the judge ruled that BLM did not study an appropriate range of alternatives.
All of the options examined by the agency involved similar levels of grazing, and none included the possibility of ending the practice, he said.
"BLM misstated its own regulations to justify its failure to consider a no-grazing alternative, and BLM gave no rationale for neglecting to consider a reduced grazing alternative," Lodge said.
The decision invalidates the 10-year grazing permits obtained by ranchers, but the judge has not prohibited cattle from being turned out to pasture this year.
Ranchers will be allowed to graze cattle on the allotments until January 2012, which should be enough time for the BLM to revise its flawed environmental analysis, Lodge said.
In the meantime, BLM must ensure that bull trout are protected from the effects of grazing.
The agency has also been barred from implementing any rangeland improvements, such as a new water pipeline, previously approved for the area.