A federal judge has rejected a request by environmentalists to block grazing on 82,000 acres of Oregon’s Fremont-Winema National Forest, though cattle numbers will be sharply reduced.
U.S. District Judge Michael McShane has ruled that the likelihood of “irreparable harm” to the threatened Oregon spotted frog is “speculative, rather than imminent” and thus doesn’t justify a preliminary injunction.
Likewise, the judge has found that Concerned Friends of the Winema and four other environmental groups haven’t shown that sensitive wetland fens would suffer irreparable damage without such a prohibition.
However, the U.S. Forest Service has said only 95 cow-calf pairs will actually be grazed within the 62,860-acre Chemult Pasture this year, while 275 are authorized under the rancher’s permit. No grazing will be allowed in the 19,000-acre North Sheep Pasture, while the permit authorizes 494 pairs.
“In response to plaintiffs’ motion, the government and the permittee agreed to substantially reduce the grazing planned for the 2019 season, both in terms of the number of cattle and the areas to be grazed,” the judge said.
The environmental plaintiffs argued these two pastures contain the only perennial stream within the larger Antelope Allotment, known as Jack Creek, on which Oregon spotted frogs depend for survival.
“Cattle use pools for watering and loafing, where they can trample, kill, and disturb frogs of all life stages, especially as pools dry up as summer and fall progress,” according to their motion for preliminary injunction.
The Forest Service countered that grazing would occur at lower livestock levels than authorized and only within fenced areas that don’t contain habitat for the frog, which is protected by the Endangered Species Act.
The judge said concerns about grazing impacts on the frog “are not unfounded” due to evidence of cattle trespass even when the animals were banned from entering the Chemult Pasture for the past two years.
There’s also evidence that some fences are in a “state of disrepair,” which has already resulted in the Forest Service issuing a notice of non-compliance to the ranch this year, McShane said.
Even so, the judge said the ranch has committed to repairing fences and the Forest Service has “imposed sufficient limitations and safeguards” to protect the frogs, weighing against the need for an injunction.
Environmental groups also alleged “rare plant complexes” were imperiled by compaction, animal waste and vegetation removal, but the judge agreed with the Forest Service that the agency has taken “appropriate steps to mitigate that harm” by excluding livestock from fens.
While he denied the environmental plaintiffs’ motion, McShane noted his ruling only pertains to scaled-back grazing in 2019 and not the broader issue of the agency’s “new adaptive management system” that allows greater dispersal by cattle.
“Those issues will be resolved in the ordinary course of litigation, with the benefit of a full administrative record,” the judge said.