WWP Enjoys Many Exciting Victories on Behalf of Wildlife and Public Lands in the West

WWP Online Messenger #130

Pygmy Rabbit
Photo © U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

In late September 2007 Federal District Judge Edward Lodge of the District of Idaho agreed with WWP and issued an Order overturning the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision not to review the status of pygmy rabbits under the Endangered Species Act. Judge Lodge remanded the issue to the USFWS for a new review.

You can review Judge Lodge’s Order at: http://www.westernwatersheds.org/legal/07/pygmy/pygmysjorder.pdf

Here is an article about that Court Order from the Jackson Hole News and Guide:

Judge: Reassess pygmy rabbit

By Noah Brenner
Date: October 5, 2007

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must reconsider the pygmy rabbit for listing under the Endangered Species Act, a federal judge in Idaho ruled last week. Though there are no pygmy rabbits in Teton County, the decision could have grave implications for the future of energy development in Sublette County, south of Jackson Hole.

U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge found that Fish and Wildlife officials lacked sufficient scientific evidence to determine whether the animal warranted federal protection. The agency had ruled in a 2004 decision that the rabbit did not merit protection, but a host of environmental groups, including Western Watersheds Project and Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, took the decision to court.

Measuring between 9 and 12 inches long and weighing about 1 pound, pygmy rabbits are the smallest rabbit in North America. The animals rely on large, dense stands of sagebrush for more than 90 percent of their diet, according to Martin Grenier, nongame mammal biologist with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. Sagebrush across the West has come under pressure from a host of factors recently, including the spread of invasive cheatgrass, housing development and a boom in energy development. Environmental groups say this trend threatens all animals that depend on sagebrush for habitat and food.

“Pygmy rabbits are especially vulnerable to habitat fragmentation from the building of road networks because these animals are too shy to venture out from the cover of sagebrush to cross the road,” said Duane Short of Biodiversity Conservation Alliance. “For this reason, the huge level of oil and gas development targeting sagebrush basins in Wyoming is a major threat to the pygmy rabbit.”

Grenier agreed that energy development is probably the biggest threat to the animal in Wyoming, but he said those operations are reviewed by federal biologists for their impacts to the rabbit. “Both industry and federal biologists are aware of the habitat requirements of the bunny and mitigate those impacts,” Grenier said. “It’s not fair to say it is happening without disregard.” However, there are “data gaps” in the information scientists know about pygmy rabbits, including population trends across the state, Grenier said. Researchers are working to fill in those gaps.

Lodge’s ruling requires Fish and Wildlife to reconsider its initial finding in light of recent research. Research in other states may find declining populations or distribution, Grenier said, but recent research completed by Game and Fish and the University of Wyoming has found a much greater distribution of rabbits across Wyoming.

If listed, the pint-sized rabbit could push the 100-foot-tall drilling rigs off portions of the Sublette County sagebrush where energy companies are pursuing two of the largest natural-gas fields in the country.

Western Watersheds Project Posts Pass Creek
Allotment Grazing Tour Videos On YouTube and Boone
Creek and Copper Basin Allotment Tour Photos on the
WWP Web Site


See how your land management agencies are managing public lands ranching on the Lost River Ranger District of the Salmon-Challis National Forest !!

WWP has posted four short videos of WWP’s Pass Creek allotment Tour of October 2, 2007 online at this URL:

And you can review WWP still photos of the Fox Creek watershed of the Boone Creek allotment here: http://www.westernwatersheds.org/copperbasin/tour_9_26_07/index.html

Thanks to WWP’s Media Director Brian Ertz for the photos and the videos.


Western Watersheds Project Wins A Precedent Setting
Decision on The Nickel Creek Allotment in Owyhee
County, Idaho


On September 28, 2007 U.S. Department of the Interior Administrative Law Judge Andrew Pearlstein issued a remarkable 124 page decision agreeing with WWP’s Appeal of the Owyhee BLM’s grazing decision on the 67,000 acre Nickel Creek Allotment (and the much smaller Nickel Creek FFR (“fenced federal range”) allotment) located in Owyhee County, Idaho. The allotment has critical habitat for sage grouse and has experienced severe degradation from mismanaged cattle use.

Judge Pearlstein found that the BLM had violated its own grazing regulations as well as the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). He also established interim grazing requirements for the Nickel Creek allotment until the BLM can issue a new grazing decision in keeping with his decision. The Judge’s conclusions from page 121 of his decision are as follows:

1. BLM’s Assessments and Determinations properly established that the ecological conditions on the Allotments failed to meet any of the applicable Idaho standards for rangeland health.

2. BLM’s Final Decision unreasonably relied upon inadequate data and unsupported assumptions to perpetuate a stocking rate that exceeds the carrying capacity of the Allotments, in violation of 43 C.F.R. 4130.3-1(a).

3. The Final Decision will not result in making significant progress toward meeting the standards of rangeland health, as required by 43 C.F.R. 41802(c).

4. The EA and Final Decision did not comply with NEPA in failing to adequately consider the light use alternative, and failing to discuss the RMP/EIS’s projection of a 30% reduction in AUMs for the Nickel Creek Allotment.

This very important decision will enable WWP to bring about needed changes in management on hundreds of additional BLM grazing allotments across the west.

Readers interested in this important precedential decision may review it on the WWP web site at this URL (but please keep in mind that because the file is a scanned PDF file it is quite large at about 4.7 MB so a very long download for all but broadband internet connections):


Western Watersheds Project Wins a Stay On The Ord
Mountain Allotment in Southern California Protecting
Critical Habitat For The Desert Tortoise

Grizzly Bear
Photo © U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

WWP would like to thank Dr. Mike Connor, WWP’s California Science Director, Greta Anderson, WWP’s Arizona Director and Todd Shuman, WWP’s California Director for this win in critical habitat for desert tortoise ! Thanks to all !

Interested readers can find Judge Sweitzer’s Decision at the WWP web site here.

Judge prevents BLM from extending grazing rights

October 2, 2007 - 6:14PM

A federal judge issued a temporary order on Monday preventing the Bureau of Land Management from increasing the number of cattle a local ranch can graze on 136,000 acres, just north of Lucerne Valley.

Conservation groups sued the BLM over concerns that desert tortoises and other endangered species could lose their habitats due to the grazing cattle. Under the current lease, the BLM is allowed to let the nearby Shield F Ranch graze up to 175 cows on public lands near the Ord Mountains. The area includes 117,000 acres of desert tortoise habitat. Shield F currently has about 25 cows on the land.

The BLM previously allowed up to 295 cows on the lands, but after a legal challenge in 2001, was ordered to reduce the maximum number allowed until the Western Mojave land-use plan was developed in 2006. The BLM now seeks to return to the pre-2001 allotment, but a consortium of four environmental groups appealed the plan.

Harvey C. Sweitzer, an administrative law judge with the Department of Interior's Office of Hearings and Appeals, ruled that the effects of the lease extension on wildlife should be further explored before the 10-year lease is extended. Sweitzer will further consider the matter in a hearing to be held in the coming months. The hearing has not yet been scheduled, said Luke Smart, an attorney adviser with the hearings office. He said that conservation groups and the BLM frequently disagree over the effects that cattle grazing has on the environment.

"These are kinds of issues that come up, and these are the types of issues the BLM, grazers and conservation groups wrestle with," Smart said.

Michael Conner, California science director with the Western Watersheds Project, one of the conservation groups behind the lawsuit, said he was pleased with the decision. He said feels the land needs time to recover from the effects of past grazing. "We're very happy with this ruling because the judge is basically agreeing that our case has merit," he said.

Conner said that grazing cattle can trample tortoises, tortoise eggs as well as burrows. He said other endangered species such as the big-horned sheep and Mojave monkey flower could also be at risk.

Anthony Chavez, a rangeland management specialist with the BLM, said he disagrees with the idea that the current herd of 25 cows on 154,000 acres is a burden on he environment. He said the terms of the new lease did not represent an increase in the number of cattle because the levels were allowed prior to 2001. He said the agency has not yet decided how to proceed and will wait for the upcoming hearing.

Members of the Shield F Ranch did not respond to calls seeking comment.

Judge halts cattle plan
A final ruling could increase grazing in turtle habitat


Matt Wrye, Staff Writer
Article Launched: 10/02/2007 11:26:00 PM PDT

BARSTOW - To graze or not to graze?
That's the issue a federal administrative judge confronted Monday when he halted a plan by the federal Bureau of Land Management to increase the number of cattle allowed to graze on thousands of acres near here. The BLM wants to increase cattle-grazing to a former level on land recognized as critical habitat for the desert tortoise. The land is located south of the 15 Freeway. The plaintiffs - the Center for Biological Diversity and other California conservation groups - say the decision is a small victory. But the lawsuit is still undecided, and bureau officials are confident they'll eventually prevail. At issue is whether 130 more cows and a few horses should be allowed to graze on about 152,000 acres of private, state and federal land.

The terms are part of the BLM's 10-year lease contract that was renewed in September with private ranchers and other lessees. More than 100,000 acres in that land area is designated as the bureau's Desert Wildlife Management Area and lies within the California Desert Conservation Area. The current allotment is 172 cows and a few horses. Only 25 head of cattle are grazing the land, according to Anthony Chavez, rangeland management specialist at the BLM's Barstow field office. "This allotment is our biggest challenge because three quarters of the land is critical habitat for the desert tortoise," he said. "We have to strike a balance between all of this, and it's not an easy task."

The desert tortoise is listed as a threatened species with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Officials with the Center for Biological Diversity say more cows means less habitat for tortoises because cattle trample the underground burrows the reptiles live in. "We have a number of concerns," said Ileene Anderson, a biologist with the center. "There is direct competition for forage between cows and the desert tortoise. They're both herbivores and eat plants. They directly compete for food resources." Both possibilities can ultimately end in death for desert tortoises, she said.

In 2000, the BLM settled a lawsuit with the center that temporarily reduced the cattle-grazing limit to 172 cows and a few horses until the lease was up for renewal. The original cattle-grazing limit approved in the late 1980s was about 300 cows, Chavez said. "(The center's) premise that we're increasing livestock use isn't exactly correct," Chavez said. "We're restoring measures ... prior to the settlement agreement. There is no real increase. Now the interim is over with and we're going back to our original permitted use." The settlement ended with approval of the West Mojave Plan in 2006, which kept the temporary 172-cow cattle-grazing level the same, as long as forage was above 230 pounds per acre. Another official on the plaintiffs' side a 130-cow increase is considerable, given that it's almost double the current amount allowed under the temporary settlement.

"If you impact the environment in the desert, it takes a long time for desert habitat to recover," said Michael Connor, California science director of the Western Watersheds Project. "We're delighted that we got a stay," he added. "(The judge) looked at our appeal and decided that we have substantial evidence and are likely to prevail in a court case." On the contrary, the BLM is "fairly confident" the judge will rule in its favor, Chavez said. He noted a professional opinion sent to the BLM from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that says an increase in cattle grazing will not jeopardize desert tortoises or other critical habitat in the area. Whatever the lawsuit's outcome, the BLM is prepared to implement the judge's orders, he said.

Western Watersheds Project Files Litigation Against
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service For Its Failure to
Issue A 90 Day Finding Or A Twelve Month Status
Review of WWP’s Petition To List the Big Lost River
Whitefish Under The Endangered Species Act

Big Lost River Whitefish
Photo © Idaho Department of Fish and Game

After almost 16 months of intransigence by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Western Watersheds Project has filed litigation in federal District Court in Idaho to force the agency to comply with federal law and respond to WWP’s Petition To List the Big Lost River Whitefish under the protections of the Endangered Species Act.

Because the agency is in direct violation of the law, WWP expects a quick settlement of this case with a court ordered schedule for the agency to comply with the law.

These delays in meeting the requirements of the Endangered Species Act have become the norm under the current administration as they seek to delay all protections for wildlife that are at risk of extinction.

WWP is ably represented in this litigation by attorney Judi Brawer of Boise, Idaho. Thank you Judi !

Readers interested in reviewing the WWP Complaint can find it on the WWP web site at this URL:

WWP’s Payette National Forest Litigation Ends The
2007 Trailing of Domestic Sheep On Cuddy Mountain
Adjacent To The Hells Canyon National Recreation

Bighorn Sheep

Western Watersheds Project and our co-plaintiff the Hells Canyon Preservation Council won another victory in late September 2007 on the Payette National Forest without a Judge’s Order when the Shirts Brothers Sheep Ranch folded its opposition and agreed not to trail domestic sheep near the Cuddy Mountain bighorn herd. This change in domestic sheep use will prevent any risk of disease transmission to Rocky Mountain Bighorns on Cuddy Mountain.

The most recent filings in this WWP litigation are declarations from the Shirts Brothers and a revised Annual Operating Plan from the Payette National Forest that can be found on the WWP web site here: http://www.westernwatersheds.org/legal/pyttnzprc/declabandontrailing9_07.pdf
And here: http://www.westernwatersheds.org/legal/pyttnzprc/aoi_addendum9_07.pdf

Additionally this litigation is the subject of a front page article in the current issue of High Country News by Nathaniel Hoffman and entitled “Sheep vs. Sheep”. Interested readers can review that lengthy article at the HCN web site here:

This major WWP effort to protect bighorn sheep is continuing as WWP and HCPC will be seeking a court Order blocking all domestic sheep use on the only domestic sheep grazing allotment on the Nez Perce National Forest for the 2007-2008 winter use period.

That Motion will be filed this month as turn-out for domestic sheep on the Allison-Berg allotment is scheduled for December 2007. The allotment is located a few miles east of Riggins, Idaho on the north side of the Salmon River adjacent to the Gospel Hump Wilderness Area. Bighorn Sheep of the remnant Frank Church Wilderness population have been sighted near that allotment in 2007.

Thanks to WWP’s attorney in this case, Laurie Rule who is doing a tremendous job and to WWP Western Idaho Director Debra Ellers and Western Idaho Data Specialist Dale Grooms for their great work to protect Bighorns !