This article appeared in yesterday's Casper Star-Tribune (July 14, 2003)
By BRODIE FARQUHAR Star-Tribune staff writer
A conservation group focused on protection and restoration of Western watersheds has opened a full-time Wyoming office in Pinedale.
Western Watersheds Project, often associated with efforts to stop livestock grazing on public lands across the West, has hired contract biologist Jonathan Ratner to run its Wyoming office.
"We'll have a full-time, on-the-ground staffer who is very familiar with western and central Wyoming," said Jon Marvel, founder of the Hailey, Idaho-based group.
Marvel said the Wyoming office has several priorities including monitoring the "sweetheart settlement" between the Bureau of Land Management and Thermopolis-area rancher Frank Robbins.
Despite nine years of contentious relations between Robbins and the Worland Field Office, the settlement gave Robbins unparalleled access to state and BLM officials, greater flexibility in how he managed his BLM grazing allotments and suspended BLM lawsuits against Robbins for two years.
If BLM officials chose not to talk to Western Watersheds about the Robbins settlement, Marvel said "we'll see 'em in court." Advocates for the West -- a Boise-based, nonprofit, conservation law firm -- has threatened to sue the BLM, alleging that the Robbins settlement violates the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, Taylor Grazing Act, Endangered Species Act and the Code of Federal Regulations.
Marvel said the Wyoming office will also work to rid Grand Teton National Park of grazing and to seek the retirement of all grazing allotments bordering Yellowstone National Park. "That should go a long way toward ending conflicts with wolves and grizzly bears," Marvel said.
Other goals include seeking federal legislation for a voluntary federal grazing permit buyout program to compensate ranchers and restore public lands; rewriting the Big Horn National Forest plan and ending all domestic sheep grazing on public lands where big horn sheep exist now or historically have existed.
Ratner said even before the Wyoming office was opened, he was inundated by calls for help from BLM and Forest Service staff.
"Professional people with strong ethics feel they are being steamrolled," Ratner said. "Higher up officials are asking them to do illegal things and ignore the law."
Ratner can be contacted by telephone at (307) 537-3111, e-mail at email@example.com or by the U.S. mail at P.O. Box 1160, Pinedale, Wyo. 82941.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Tuesday delayed again a decision to list slickspot peppergrass, a rare Idaho plant, as an endangered species.
Last year the FWS settled a lawsuit filed by Western Watersheds Project and the Committee for the High Desert for the agency's failure to list the plant under the Endangered Species Act. The federal-court settlement required the FWS to make a final decision by Tuesday on listing slickspot peppergrass under the ESA.
Instead, the agency postponed further action for another six months, citing "substantial disagreement" among a group of six "experts," or peer reviewers.
According to Jeff Foss, supervisor of FWS' Snake River Basin Office, five of the peer reviewers supported the "sufficiency and accuracy" of the science used to arrive at a final rule to list slickspot peppergrass as endangered. The lone dissenting opinion came from Terry Bashore, chief ecologist and range liaison at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia.
Training operations at Mountain Home Air Force Base would be severely affected if slickspot peppergrass were listed under the ESA. The Air Force comments included Bashore's review and a set of comments from six other Air Force participants.
"This is one of the most blatant examples of political tampering with agency decision-making that we have seen," said Todd Tucci, an attorney with Advocates for the West representing WWP and CHD. "For years, FWS scientists have carefully detailed the threats of livestock grazing, fire and habitat fragmentation that are causing slickspot peppergrass to go extinct."
"As soon as possible, we intend to file a 60-day notice to overturn turn this violation of law," added Jon Marvel, executive director of WWP.
The FWS noted as early as 1999 that slickspot peppergrass qualified as a "candidate species" for ESA listing. The agency noted that "federal regulations currently do not provide sufficient protection" for slickspot peppergrass from "road developments, livestock watering tank placement, military activities, off-road vehicle use, or other potentially damaging activities."
In April 2000, the FWS concluded: "We have carefully assessed the best scientific and commercial information available regarding past, present, and future threats faced by (slickspot peppergrass). . . . Based on our evaluation, the preferred action is to list (slickspot peppergrass) as endangered."
The agency went so far as to say that the rate of disappearance of slickspot peppergrass is "the highest known of any Idaho rare plant species."
Enter U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), who sent a letter to FWS headquarters in Washington, D.C. "Discussions with officials at Mountain Home Air Force Base and ranchers in Idaho have impressed on me the enormous impact such a listing might have on a variety of activities in Idaho," Crapo wrote. "At present, no one, including the FWS, has provided any information to me which would lead me to believe that there is solid empirical evidence to justify such a decision."
"The FWS identified a species in desperate need of protection and was moving quickly to grant slickspot peppergrass a last chance at survival," said Tucci. That is, until Senator Crapo interjected politics into the listing decision."
"There is not a credible biologist around who believes the science is still out on the status of slickspot peppergrass," said Katie Fite, conservation director of CHD. "Cattle grazing by well-heeled Idaho ranchers in the Jarbidge country, which includes Air Force bombing range lands, is rapidly destroying slickspot habitat."
Slickspot peppergrass (Lepidium papilliferum) is a flowering plant unique to Idaho. It is threatened with extinction by non-native weeds caused by livestock trampling and grazing, road construction and off-road vehicles in the Snake River Plain, Owyhee Plateau and adjacent foothills of southwestern Idaho.
Total suitable habitat for remaining slickspot peppergrass populations is less than 8,400 acres, and total existing, high-quality occupied habitat for the plant is less than 3.3 acres.
"The ranching industry and the politicians who play to it for their own gain continue to exert nearly complete control over the ESA process," said Marvel.