Judge dismisses lawsuit against grazing on eight
Mateusz Perkowski for
Capital Press 3/11/17
A federal judge has rejected environmentalist arguments that
cattle grazing has unlawfully harmed endangered sucker fish in
Oregon’s Fremont-Winema National Forest.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Mark Clarke has thrown out a lawsuit by
three environmental groups — Oregon Wild, Friends of Living
Oregon Waters and the Western Watersheds Project — which claimed
that grazing was unlawfully authorized on eight allotments in
the Lost River watershed.
The plaintiffs accused the U.S. Forest Service of “ignoring
widespread evidence of riparian problems” that adversely
affected the Lost River sucker and shortnose sucker, which are
federally protected under the Endangered Species Act.
However, the judge has ruled that plaintiffs failed to prove
that grazing degraded streams in violation of the National
Forest Management Act.
Conditions have improved in many riparians areas despite
continued grazing while recovery trends are “not significantly
different” among sites that are grazed and those that are not,
“This would tend to indicate grazing is not the reason for any
failure to attain (riparian management objectives) in streams
found on the challenged allotments,” he said.
While the environmental groups have pointed to evidence of
deterioration along portions of some creeks, they haven’t shown
“watershed level” and “landscape-scale” failures to live up to
fish-recovery objectives, Clarke said.
The “creek-specific observations” by environmental groups aren’t
enough to “successfully rebut” the Forest Service’s
interpretation of the data, he said.
“Finally, many of the creek assessments plaintiffs point to as
evidence of a failure to attain (riparian management objectives)
actually show improving or stable trends,” the judge said.
The Forest Service’s decision to authorize grazing on the eight
allotments was based on “reasonably gathered and evaluated data”
related to fish recovery strategies mandated under the National
Forest Management Act, he said.
The judge’s decision reinforces the idea that the Forest Service
must strive toward the goals set by the inland fish strategy for
national forests, rather than meet those standards
instantaneously, said Scott Horngren, an attorney with the
Western Resources Legal Center who represented ranchers who
intervened in the case.
“You need to look at it for the whole watershed, not just a
hundred feet of stream,” Horngren said.
Clarke also dismissed the plaintiffs’ Endangered Species Act
arguments, ruling they were moot because future grazing
approvals will rely on a new consultation among federal agencies
on the two fish species.
Horngren said the federal government is working on that
consultation, which his clients hope will be finished in time
for the 2017 grazing season.
It’s possible that new litigation will ensue over that
consultation when it’s complete, he said.
Capital Press was unable to reach attorneys for the
environmental groups as of press time.
The environmental groups’ claims of National Environmental
Policy Act violations were likewise dismissed because the
plaintiffs hadn’t fully “exhausted” administrative challenges
against the grazing plans, the ruling said.
New information that’s emerged about threats to the fish and
their critical habitat doesn’t rise to the level of requiring
additional environmental analysis of grazing, Clarke said.
For example, although the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has
reached the “alarming” conclusion that shortnose suckers face a
“high degree of threat of extinction,” this finding doesn’t
influence the Forest Service’s assessment of grazing, he said.
“While FWS concluded that significant threats to shortnose
suckers’ viability remain and thus that their chance of
extinction is high, it did not identify grazing as one of those
threats; in fact, it made no mention of grazing at all,” the
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