By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
A longstanding court battle between environmentalists, ranchers and the federal government over grazing in Oregon's Malheur National Forest has been declared over.
However, the conclusion of three consolidated lawsuits from 2003, 2007 and 2008 may not be the final word in the controversy over cattle's effects on threatened steelhead.
The parties involved recently stipulated to an order ending the litigation that summarized which legal arguments the environmental group won or lost.
The order, signed by U.S. District Judge Ancer Haggerty, specifically leaves open the possibility of future litigation over a "biological opinion" issued earlier this year, in which the federal government declared that grazing won't jeopardize steelhead as long as certain conditions are met.
The judgment also "does not preclude" the Oregon Natural Desert Association, the environmental plaintiff, from suing the U.S. Forest Service over future grazing authorizations.
ONDA had accused the agency of permitting grazing in the national forest to the detriment of steelhead in violation of the Endangered Species Act, arguing that cattle trampled streambanks in excess of the threshold allowed under a previous biological opinion.
Such "bank alteration" causes more sediment to be stirred up in streams, raises water temperatures and destroys egg-laying habitat, according to the environmentalists.
Ranchers filed their own complaint against the federal government claiming the maximum bank alteration threshold of 10 percent to 20 percent, depending on the area, wasn't based on the best available science.
The lawsuit was consolidated with previous cases filed by the environmentalists.
Judge Haggerty repeatedly curtailed grazing at ONDA's request, agreeing that the practice should be restricted due to the "likelihood of irreparable harm to steelhead and their habitat."
In April 2012, the National Marine Fisheries Service issued a new biological opinion that governs grazing until 2016, dissolving a partial injunction limiting the practice that was previously imposed by Haggerty.