The Saga of Grazing Reform in the Owyhees

Throughout the 1990s, BLM had tried to develop a new Land Use Plan (RMP) for 1.3 million acres of redband trout streams, rugged scenic canyons, old growth western juniper forests, and expanses of sage-grouse habitat in the Owyhee Canyonlands.

Political tampering from western politicians (Sen. Larry Craig and others) had thwarted grazing changes in the Owyhee for decades, despite the region’s notoriously degraded streams. The new effort was de-railed.

Finally, in the late 1990s, Western Watersheds Project brought litigation in Idaho District Court to move the stalled Plan forward. At the same time, we challenged 68 grazing allotment permits where the BLM had continued status quo grazing. We prevailed in Idaho district court. The new Owyhee RMP was finished in December 1999.

The ranchers, unwilling to be held accountable for grazing impacts on public lands, appealed to the Ninth Circuit, who upheld the District Court ruling in 2002, finding: “Water is life, and the health of the Owyhee depends on the health of its streams.  Unfortunately, cattle grazing now threatens the life of the Owyhee.”

BLM began on-the-ground studies of the ecological conditions across the 68 allotments, and made changes implementing the new plan protections.  A schedule had been set by the court for completing this process, and interim use standards limiting damage were also in place.

By 2003, the new BLM managers in the Bush administration quashed the changes to damaging grazing practices in the Owyhee . At the same time, BLM began to roll back the changes that had just been made to help heal redband trout streams and sage-grouse habitats. Expensive cattle consultants were hired at taxpayer expense to aid in the rollback. Sub rosa deals were struck.

The BLM was unresponsive and managers wouldn’t return phone calls or e-mails. Staff members that had been seen as favorable to changing grazing practices were shunted off to meaningless paper shuffling jobs  – often far away. The schedule for completing the 68 permits fell by the wayside.

During this period, WWP had to repeatedly bring actions in federal court to stop rollbacks on the Hardtrigger Allotment in the Owyhee Field Office, the Battle Creek Allotment in the Bruneau Field Office and also the Castlehead-Lambert allotment on Juniper Mountain in the Owyhee Field Office. Castlehead is part of the new 2013 BLM proposed Decision that has politicians like Idaho Gov. Butch Otter complaining. Otter is the former son-in-law of J. R. Simplot the largest public lands welfare ranching operation in Owyhee County and the U.S.

Western Watersheds Project also had to litigate to get the BLM to comply with the schedule for analyzing grazing damage in the 68 allotments. The Garat allotment, comprising nearly a quarter million acres of critical habitat where sage-grouse are dwindling, is one of those.

Throughout this process, WWP has been ably represented by Advocates for the West.

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