Conservationists in northeast Oregon are suing the U.S. Forest Service for reauthorizing livestock grazing on 44,000 acres of grasslands within the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area.
The lawsuit, filed Jan. 10 by the Greater Hells Canyon Council in La Grande, Ore., seeks to protect a rare and endemic species of plant known as Spalding’s catchfly — a summer-blooming member of the carnation family.
Spalding’s catchfly is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. It is found today only in eastern Washington, northeast Oregon, west-central Idaho, western Montana and a small sliver of British Columbia, Canada.
Veronica Warnock, conservation director for the Greater Hells Canyon Council, said livestock grazing further jeopardizes the viability of Spalding’s catchfly in the area, as cattle displace soil, trample habitat and spread invasive weeds.
Fewer than 1,000 catchfly plants are known to exist in the grazing area along the lower Imnaha River. However, the Forest Service renewed permits in 2015 on four winter allotments, including Cow Creek, Toomey, Rhodes Creek and Lone Pine.
All permits are held by McClaran Ranch, based in Joseph, Ore. Scott McClaran, ranch manager, could not immediately be reached for comment.
The Forest Service is obligated to protect Spalding’s catchfly under the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area Comprehensive Management Plan, Warnock said. The lawsuit also lists Kris Stein, Hells Canyon National Recreation Area district ranger, as a defendant.
Grazing is currently underway on the allotments, though Warnock said the group is not asking for an injunction.
“This isn’t about a rancher doing something wrong,” Warnock said. “This is about the Forest Service ignoring management recommendations on how to protect and recover a threatened species, something it is required to do in Hells Canyon.”
A spokesman for the Forest Service said the agency cannot comment on pending litigation.
The Hells Canyon National Recreation Area is part of the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, though they are technically managed under different forest plans. In 2015, Stein, the forest district ranger, signed off on the Lower Imnaha Rangeland Analysis, which authorized commercial grazing on the four allotments.
The Greater Hells Canyon Council argues that decision violates the agency’s obligation to protect threatened Spalding’s catchfly under the National Forest Management Act. The species was listed as threatened by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2001 due to agricultural and urban development.
The USFWS released a recovery plan for Spalding’s catchfly in 2007. In order to be delisted, the species must reach 27 populations that each have at least 500 individual, reproducing plants.
Darilyn Brown, executive director of the Greater Hells Canyon Council, said delisting is the ultimate goal.
“The area in dispute is really just a small fraction of the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest,” Brown said. “However, it could have a big impact on the recovery of Spalding’s catchfly.”
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Pendleton, Ore., claims the Forest Service “failed to take the requisite hard look at the potential environmental impacts of reauthorizing cattle grazing in the Lower Imnaha Rangeland Analysis.”
The record of decision for the Lower Imnaha Rangeland Analysis allows grazing on all four units between November and May, except for the Lone Pine allotment which allows grazing between December and May. The plan also defers grazing in pastures with Spalding’s catchfly every third or fourth year, depending on conditions.
The decision points out that livestock grazing has been part of the landscape for more than 300 years, and this strategy “best meets the purpose and need of the project, while providing the most balanced approach for mitigating significant issues and resource concerns, with a feasible and implementable livestock operation.”