Medford, Ore. — Environmentalists want to limit cattle grazing along Oregon’s Sprague and Sycan rivers to protect bull trout habitat that the threatened species doesn’t actually occupy.
Despite the fish’s absence, environmentalists have asked a federal judge to invalidate grazing plans for 10 federal land allotments because livestock unlawfully degrade its “critical habitat.”
“What we have here is unoccupied habitat and the reason it’s unoccupied is because it’s not suitable for bull trout,” said Lauren Rule, attorney for the environmental groups during oral arguments April 26 in Medford, Ore.
Oregon Wild, Friends of Living Oregon Waters and the Western Watersheds Project claim in a lawsuit that the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service violated the Endangered Species Act by wrongly concluding that grazing won’t adversely affect the bull trout’s habitat.
That conclusion was “irrational” and ignored water quality problems caused by cattle, such as higher water temperatures from denuded vegetation and trampled streams, the plaintiffs claim.
Any activity that occurs within the bill trout’s “critical habitat” — as designated by federal regulators — cannot slow the species’ recovery, Rule said. “It needs to expand to areas it’s not currently occupying.”
The plaintiffs argue that mitigation measures intended to reduce impacts from cattle are insufficiently enforced, so the federal agencies should not have taken them into account in deciding that grazing won’t hurt the species.
“They’re not certain to occur at any regular frequency,” Rule said.
The federal government is also accused of violating the Clean Water Act by failing to ensure that streams in the allotments met water quality standards for temperature. Environmentalists argue that cattle widen stream channels, raising temperatures to the detriment of fish.
Grazing was permitted despite numerous stream temperature “exceedances” across the landscape, said Elizabeth Zultoski, attorney for the plaintiffs.
“This is simply not an isolated problem,” Zultoski said, adding that federal regulators largely ignored the problem when re-authorizing grazing. “This court cannot defer to a void.”
Several ranching families that rely on grazing allotments in Oregon’s Fremont-Winema National Forest have intervened in the case as defendants and joined the federal government in asking the judge to reject the environmentalist arguments.
“This is their livelihood,” said Scott Horngren, attorney for the ranchers. “They’re not out there year after year to get willows off the range or prevent the bull trout from recovering.”
There’s no proof that “exceedances” of stream temperature standards were caused by grazing, as high temperatures occur even in areas where grazing isn’t permitted, Horngren said.
Impacts from grazing don’t rise to the level of causing unlawful harm to the bull trout’s critical habitat, he said. “Just because you cut a tree or graze a blade of grass does not mean there’s an adverse effect.”
More than 90 percent of the sites evaluated by federal regulators were in “proper functioning condition or showing an upward trend,” the ranchers say.
Before bull trout can re-occupy the allotments, the streams would have to be cleared of non-native fish and culverts that act as barriers for the species, the government argues.
Federal regulators examined every pasture in each of the allotments and found grazing to have insignificant effects, said Sean Martin, an attorney for the government.
While the environmentalists may disagree that grazing doesn’t adversely affect the fish, that doesn’t justify overturning the federal agencies’ conclusion, the government claims.
The environmental groups incorrectly argue that any federally sanctioned activity occurring in the bull trout’s critical habitat must improve the species’ chances of recovery, Martin said.
“That’s absolutely unworkable,” he said.
Grazing is generally a neutral activity that’s been ongoing in the forest since the 1860s and its effects are now regularly monitored by regulators, Martin said. “The Forest Service is doing what it said it would do.”
Deer, elk and beaver also eat streamside vegetation, such as willows, but such “browse” hasn’t been found to materially increase stream temperatures, he said. “To blame it on grazing goes too far.”
It’s true that temperatures in some streams are too high, which is bad for bull trout, but “what’s speculative is which of the contributing causes is the culprit,” he said.
Natural conditions in the region can cause “exceedances” of water temperature standards, he said.
For more than a decade, the Forest Service has partnered with Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality to restore eroded streambanks, replace culverts and otherwise enhance water quality to ensure compliance with the Clean Water Act, Martin said.
“This is really for Oregon DEQ to administer, not for a group with an agenda,” he said.