BOISE, Idaho — A federal judge has ruled that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management violated federal laws in issuing grazing permits without first conducting needed assessments on five allotments in southwestern Idaho analyzing how grazing could harm sage grouse.
The decision Monday by U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill also begins the second round of a lawsuit by the environmental organization Western Watersheds Project that plans to challenge other BLM grazing allotments spread across southern Idaho.
Attorney Todd Tucci of Advocates for the West represents Western Watersheds. He said he may seek an injunction to prevent grazing on the five allotments if the BLM doesn’t respond adequately to Winmill’s decision.
“Because the grazing permits are unlawful, BLM has no authority to continue grazing on these allotments,” Tucci said, adding he has contacted the BLM to negotiate about the allotments but hasn’t heard back.
Sage grouse, Winmill noted in his 55-page decision, are designated a sensitive species by the BLM that should be treated as if it was a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act. He wrote that much of the habitat in the five allotments is degraded by livestock grazing, but the BLM decided to “essentially maintain the same levels of grazing, continue the same seasons-of-use, and loosen restrictions on the permit holders.”
Winmill said those decisions violated the Federal Land Policy and Management Act because they’re not consistent with the agency’s land use plans governing the BLM in the region. Winmill also said the agency’s failure to make progress in improving conditions for sage grouse violates the Fundamentals of Rangeland Health regulations. Finally, Winmill wrote that the BLM violated the National Environmental Policy Act because the agency didn’t conduct an analysis of the cumulative impacts of grazing over a sufficiently wide area.
“To the extent livestock and sage grouse conflict, it is grazing that must yield,” Winmill wrote.
The BLM is reviewing the decision.
“The recent ruling by Judge Winmill is relevant in that it fits with what BLM is currently doing; assessing the impact of grazing on sage-grouse habitat, and determining how we can conserve sage-grouse, even if it means making some tough decisions on the multiple uses of our public lands,” Jessica Gardetto, a spokeswoman for the BLM office in Boise, told The Times-News.
The sage grouse is a chicken-sized bird known for its elaborate mating display. Besides Idaho, it’s also found in Nevada, Wyoming, Montana, South Dakota, North Dakota, Utah, Washington, Oregon, eastern California and western Colorado.