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Our Views Columns

Date: 10/9/2014

Title: Judge Rules Against the BLM in Idaho Sage Grouse Case

Ongoing grazing permitting litigation in Idaho hit a stumbling block on September 29th, when Idaho U.S. District Court Judge Lynn Winmill issued a decision in favor of the plaintiffs—anti-grazing group, Western Watersheds Project (WWP). The lawsuit, brought by WWP in October 2008, concerns some 600 individual BLM grazing permit decisions, which WWP claims fail to protect greater sage grouse.

Judge Winmill’s decision, although disappointing, was not surprising. He had already made a similar ruling in February 2014 on “Phase I” of this case. (Due to the large number of grazing permits in question, the case was earlier divided into different “Phases.”) “Phase I” of the suit dealt with BLM decisions made on five allotments within the Owyhee and Bruneau Field Offices. The decision made for “Phase II,” dealt with 9 permits on four allotments in the Burley Field Office.

One positive for industry in both rulings was that Judge Winmill allowed permittees to continue grazing while new environmental assessments and grazing permit decisions are reanalyzed by the BLM.

Judge Winmill made two particularly troublesome rulings in his Sept. 29 decision. One was that BLM must undergo Federal Land Management Policy Act (FLPMA) analysis before temporarily renewing backlogged permits pursuant to the 2003 grazing rider. However, PLC believes this violates the intent of the congressionally-approved grazing rider, whose purpose is to prevent the interruption of grazing while the agencies work through their permit analysis backlog.

Secondly, Winmill ruled that, where Idaho Standards & Guidelines for environmental quality and health (e.g., for sage grouse habitat) are not being met, the BLM’s regulations require them to impose restrictions on stubble height, stream bank alteration, riparian browsing, utilization, etc. – in order to ensure “significant progress” toward those standards. We believe the law provides clear discretion to the agencies and the Judge has erred in demanding specific guidelines.

PLC, NCBA and the Idaho Cattle Association are intervenors in the case and are weighing our options to appeal Judge Winmill’s decision, or join BLM’s appeal, should the agency do so within 60 days of the Sept. 29 decision.