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WWP Files A Suite of Legal Motions To Close 56 Grazing Allotments in the Jarbidge Field Office of the BLM in Southern Idaho

On March 3, 2008 Western Watersheds Project with the superb legal work of WWP’s lead attorney Laird Lucas ( http://www.advocateswest.org ) filed to reopen its litigation challenging livestock grazing and the installation of livestock fencing in the Jarbidge Field Office of the BLM in Twin Falls and Owyhee Counties in southern Idaho after the enormous Murphy Fire Complex burned through the area in July 2007.

The filings seek a court order from the federal District Court stopping grazing on 56 grazing allotments encompassing about 2/3 of the 1.2 million acre Jarbidge Field Office.

Interested readers can find the complete filings here

Here is the News Release sent out by WWP:

On Monday March 3, 2008 Western Watersheds Project (WWP) filed a series of legal motions in federal district court in Boise, Idaho to reopen and expand litigation against the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) for taking illegal management actions on hundreds of thousands of acres of public lands in Twin Falls and Owyhee Counties after the 500,000 acre Murphy Complex Fire burned through the area in the summer of 2007.

The court filings seek to reopen WWP’s federal court litigation that was settled by WWP, the BLM and intervenor ranchers in September 2005. The court retained jurisdiction of the Stipulated Settlement Agreement which required the BLM to complete a new Resource Management Plan for the 1.2 million acre Jarbidge Field Office and provided for interim management of 800,000 acres of public lands until the new RMP is completed.

WWP seeks to reopen the settlement after the devastation caused by the Murphy Complex Fire because the BLM has failed to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) by:

1. Authorizing over 490 miles of reconstructed and new fencing in critical sage grouse habitat. 2. Authorizing increased livestock grazing in remaining unburned sage grouse and pygmy rabbit habitat. 3. Proposing to restore livestock grazing to burned areas before they fully recover. 4. Failing to comply with the Stipulated Settlement Agreement’s protocol for monitoring livestock grazing.

Katie Fite, WWP Biodiversity Director stated: “BLM reported just before the Murphy Complex fire that wildlife populations were already in great jeopardy. Now the fire has taken out the heart of remaining sagebrush habitat. BLM's response has been to intensify grazing in remaining unburned sagebrush. This can only be seen as a policy of grazing for the purposeful extinction of sage grouse and pygmy rabbits,”

As part of these court filings WWP has also filed a Motion for injunctive relief that asks the federal court:

1. To stop any further fence construction or reconstruction on the Jarbidge Field Office, as authorized by the Murphy Complex Fire Emergency Stabilization and Rehabilitation Plans; and/or 2. To partially reinstate the injunction set forth in the Court’s Memorandum Opinion and Decision dated August 1, 2005 (Docket No. 123), to prohibit livestock grazing on the twenty (20) Sage Grouse Priority Allotments that were subject to that August 2005 injunction, until BLM has prepared a legally adequate Environmental Impact Statement and issued lawful grazing authorizations for these allotments; and/or 3. To stop the BLM Defendants from authorizing further livestock grazing on the thirty-six (36) Sage Grouse Priority Allotments that were not subject to the August 2005 injunction thereby barring further livestock grazing on these Jarbidge allotments during the remainder of 2008 and future years, until BLM has prepared a legally adequate Environmental Impact Statement and issued lawful grazing authorizations for these allotments.

These injunction requests to the federal court are reasonable in the light of the continued harm that will occur from livestock grazing to sage grouse, pygmy rabbits and all other native wildlife of the sage-steppe unless they are imposed by the court,” said Jon Marvel, executive director of Western Watersheds Project, “these lands are grazed by several of the largest ranch operations in the west including Simplot Livestock and Brackett Ranches who persist in trampling our wildlife heritage.”

Western Watersheds Project Wins Confirmation Of A Timeline For the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service To Carry Out A New Status Review of Greater Sage Grouse

On February 29, 2008 Chief Judge B. Lynn Winmill of the federal District Court for Idaho ruled from the Bench and affirmed a stipulated agreement reached by WWP’s lead attorney Laird Lucas of Advocates For The West ( http://www.advocateswest.org ) and the U.S. Department of Justice that set a timetable for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to complete the court-ordered status review that will determine if Greater sage Grouse warrant the protection of the Endangered Species Act. The FWS had tried to back out of the stipulated agreement apparently because it pushed the final listing decision for the imperiled sage grouse into the next presidential administration in May of 2009.

With this victory WWP can assure that the science meddling so characteristic of the Bush administration will not taint this new status review. WWP owes thanks to Laird Lucas for excellent legal representation in this hearing and the prior negotiations with the Justice Department.

Here is the Associated Press story about the Court ruling:

 

Judge denies government bid to back out of sage grouse agreement

By Todd Dvorak

BOISE, Idaho - A federal judge is holding the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to a deal reached with environmentalists that sets a timeline and other conditions on whether to grant threatened or endangered status to the sage grouse.

The wildlife agency sought to back out of a stipulation filed with the court in January that set a May 2009 deadline to determine whether to list the bird under the Endangered Species Act. The deal also required the agency to consider a new and critical scientific report on the bird due out in November and give the public 60 days to comment on the report's findings.

Across the West, decisions about the sage grouse are considered critical to the future of gas and oil drilling, agriculture and urban growth.

Last month, government attorneys sought to back out of the deal, saying top Fish and Wildlife officials never signed off on it. The agreement was approved by Department of Justice lawyers, who negotiated the timeline and other details with the Idaho-based Western Watershed Project.

In U.S. District Court Friday, Robert Williams, the Justice Department lawyer representing the wildlife service, said the agreement is technically not binding because the government opted to back out before the judge signed it.

Williams also said that holding to arbitrary deadlines would keep agency officials from making a listing decision before 2009, and he argued that it's customary for agency heads to consent to agreements before steps are taken to make them legally binding.

"Unfortunately, that didn't happen here," Williams said.

Judge B. Lynn Winmill rejected those claims, saying the deal, which was filed with the court, should be treated and honored like any other legally binding contract.

The ruling is another setback for the agency since it ruled in January 2005 that the sage grouse did not merit threatened or endangered status.

In 2006, Western Watershed Projects and other groups challenged the agency's decision in federal court, claiming the decision not to list the species was flawed and unfairly influenced by political agendas.

In December, Winmill scolded the service for failing to use the best available science in its decision to deny listing.

He also harshly criticized what he said was the "inexcusable conduct" of former Deputy Assistant Interior Secretary Julie MacDonald, who oversight of the agency. MacDonald, who resigned last year, intimidated agency staffers, edited scientific conclusions and otherwise intervened in the listing process "to ensure that the 'best science' supported a decision not to list the species," Winmill said.

Environmentalists and wildlife managers say the bird's population and habitat has been diminishing for decades due to wildfires, grazing, energy development and drought. Researchers say the bird now occupies about half of its original, year-round habitat, which stretches across 11 Western states from California to Colorado and North Dakota.

Population estimates vary, but more exact numbers and other fresh, critical data on sage grouse will be included in the comprehensive study due in November by the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, an organization representing 23 states and Canadian provinces stretching from Alaska to Texas.

The Fish and Wildlife Service announced this week that it was conducting a new review of the bird's status.

Laird Lucas, attorney for Western Watersheds Project, called Winmill's ruling a victory for science over politics.

The wildlife agency said "it wanted discretion to make a decision by the end of 2008, and everybody knows that's the last full month in office for the Bush administration," Lucas said. "Let's just leave aside politics. The science is what needs to drive this decision."

WWP Files Litigation in Thurston County (Washington) Superior Court To Block Grazing on the Whiskey Dick Wildlife Area

Here is WWP’s News Release of February 29, 2008 about this state court filing to protect sage grouse and the recovering sage-steppe ecosystem of central Washington State:

Litigation Filed in Thurston County Superior Court To Challenge Free Cattle Forage Deal on Washington State Wildlife Areas

Western Watersheds Project (WWP), a west-wide conservation organization, and Dr. Steven Herman of Yelm have filed a lawsuit in Washington State’s Thurston County Superior Court challenging a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) and a livestock industry group, the Washington Cattlemen’s Association.

The controversial MOU was signed by WDFW Director Jeffrey Koenings behind closed doors in January 2008, with the purpose of encouraging commercial livestock grazing on WDFW Wildlife Areas, at cut-rate prices or even at no cost to the ranchers. The MOU was completed without any public comment period or disclosure to the public of the environmental effects of allowing grazing on the Wildlife Areas. The livestock grazing already authorized under a previous version of this MOU has endangered salmon streams and disturbed big game areas in southeastern Washington.

Dr. Donald W. Johnson, a Carlton, WA resident and WWP member, stated “The MOU between the Cattlemen and the Department of Fish and Wildlife is a betrayal of the public trust. It gives free cattle forage to a few politically connected beef producers at the expense of the wild salmon and wildlife populations for which these WDFW lands were purchased. The damage these privately owned cattle cause will reverse the investment of millions of dollars of public funds in the recovery of these lands.”

Johnson added: “I saw how these cattle herds trampled steelhead streambanks in Pintler Creek, tore up the hillsides, and grazed the Asotin Wildlife area to the nub last year. It is a disgrace. Now, they plan to expand the destruction under this MOU.”

Biologist Dr. Steven Herman of Yelm observed: “They have targeted critical sage grouse corridors and imperiled shrub steppe habitats at Whiskey Dick, as well. This runs counter to all current ecological science. Cattle spread weeds, disturb soils, and trample and disturb nesting birds.”

WWP Biodiversity Director Katie Fite observed: “The first version of the MOU has already caused extensive environmental damage in southeastern Washington. I had to buy a WDFW permit just to park my car and hike there ?yet cattlemen get to run roughshod on them for free.”

WDFW’s own biologists have expressed their concerns for the resources they have the responsibility to protect and restore, if actions brought about by this MOU continue and expand to other areas.

Cattle grazing is known to promote weed invasion, pollute water with manure and sediment, and endanger a large number of migratory birds, native fish and rare plants. Recent science on global warming and climate change now also demonstrates that environmental damage caused by cattle on arid lands exacerbates these processes.

WWP’s Fite added “We believe WDFW must conduct an environmental review on this MOU under Washington’s State Environmental Protection Act, and we look forward to discussing this and other matters with all parties.”

Western Watersheds Project Is A Regional Conservation Organization Working To Protect And Restore Western Watersheds And Wildlife

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