Posted: Thursday, October 11, 2012 12:00 PM
Cattle graze near Lincoln County, Idaho, in this file photo. A federal judge has allowed five Bureau of Land Management grazing permits to stand pending a legal review.
Judge previously said permits violated environmental law
A federal judge in Idaho has refused to throw out several grazing plans on public land in Idaho that he previously found to be unlawful.
The five grazing permits are considered test cases in a broader lawsuit over 600 U.S. Bureau of Land Management grazing decisions.
In early 2012, Chief U.S. District Judge Lynn Winmill ruled that BLM's decision to renew the five grazing permits violated several environmental laws, in part because they "fail to make significant progress toward improving conditions for the sage grouse."
That ruling didn't contain remedies for the agency's violations, and the Western Watersheds Project -- an environmental group that filed the lawsuit -- asked the judge to vacate the decisions until BLM reconsiders them.
Winmill has instead decided to allow the decisions to stand while the agency conducts a large-scale environmental review of land management plans that include the five allotments.
"To vacate the grazing decisions and enjoin grazing for the next five years while this review is completed would be a substantial hardship on the permit holders," he said, noting that some areas are in good condition.
Until the broader review is complete, the BLM will be expected to alter its grazing decisions based on "varying local conditions," since a total ban would "sweep too broadly and impose the heavy hand of the court on complex issues of range management," Winmill said.
The five test cases were found to violate environmental law because BLM didn't sufficiently study the "cumulative impacts" of grazing, so hundreds of remaining permits are also likely to be considered unlawful, said Karen Budd-Falen, a natural resources attorney who had represented ranchers in the lawsuit.
The litigation is now likely to focus on grazing curtailments for ranchers rather than whether the agency complied with environmental law, she said. "There's no stability to their operations."
The environmental plaintiff wants the BLM to make concessions and implement grazing practices that would "essentially put the ranchers out of business," Budd-Falen said.
Though the court has yet to rule on hundreds of grazing permits, Western Watersheds Projects hopes the judge's recent rulings will convince the BLM to settle rather than continue litigation, said Todd Tucci, attorney for the group.
Western Watersheds Project wanted the grazing decisions vacated but was hoping to strike a deal with BLM that would allow grazing to continue under certain conditions, he said.
The substance of Winmill's ruling is that grazing practices must change in the region to protect wildlife, though it remains to be seen if BLM will heed his guidance, Tucci said.
"They are on a short leash," he said. "There's just enough rope there for BLM to hang itself."