Environmentalists and farmers lose lawsuits
over Klamath refuges
Multiple environmental lawsuits over the management of five
national wildlife refuges in the Klamath Basin have failed, but
so has a complaint filed by agricultural groups.
A federal judge has rejected challenges filed in 2017 against
livestock grazing, pesticide usage and water management within
the 200,000-acre Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex.
U.S. District Judge Michael McShane has also dismissed claims
filed by farms and irrigation organizations, which argued that a
comprehensive conservation plan had impermissibly restricted
agricultural leases of refuge land.
The ruling has adopted the earlier findings and recommendations
of U.S. Magistrate Judge Mark Clarke, who determined the U.S.
Fish and Wildlife Service should prevail against all claims it
had violated federal statutes governing the refuge complex.
The Tulelake Irrigation District and five other agricultural
plaintiffs lacked legal standing to challenge the conservation
plan under the National Environmental Policy Act, he said.
Claims of economic harm to farmers fell outside the “zone of
interests” of NEPA, he said.
Farm groups complained that new permits with “compatibility”
determinations will complicate refuge leases by requiring
increased field flooding, tillage limitations and hazing
The agricultural plaintiffs argued these burdens would threaten
the viability of farming and interfere with a federal law
governing leases of refuge lands.
Regardless of their lack of standing, the agricultural
plaintiffs also failed to prove the Fish and Wildlife Service
didn’t take a “hard look” at the conservation plan’s
consequences, as required by NEPA, according to the judge.
The agency didn’t have to analyze the impacts of refuge lease
lands being abandoned and fallowed, since this was “a remote and
highly speculative possibility,” the ruling said.
The Fish and Wildlife Service also “reasonably concluded” that
conditions needed to benefit waterfowl trump agricultural
considerations under two federal statutes that govern the
complex, the Refuge Act and the Kuchel Act, the judge
“If the Service determines that an agricultural use is not
consistent with proper waterfowl management, the Service must be
allowed to restrict the agricultural use,” he said.
On the environmental side of the legal dispute, the Audubon
Society of Portland claimed the Fish and Wildlife Service didn’t
ensure the refuges receive adequate water.
However, the judge said the agency “does not have the authority
to change the Refuges’ junior priority water rights within the
The ruling also determined the federal agency hadn’t violated
the Clean Water Act because it complied with non-point source
discharge regulations, among other findings.
Livestock grazing in the 33,400-acre Clear Lake Refuge was
challenged by the Western Watersheds Project, which claimed the
federal government hadn’t sufficiently explored curtailments and
alternatives to the practice.
The judge said the Fish and Wildlife Service “reasonably found”
that reducing or banning grazing wouldn’t be consistent with its
policy goals, such as controlling the spread of juniper.
The federal government also took the required “hard look” at
grazing’s environmental impacts under NEPA, including its
cumulative effects on the sage grouse and sucker fish species,
the ruling said.
As for the Center for Biological Diversity’s arguments against
pesticide usage, the judge said the federal government’s
“scientific judgment” on the matter deserves deference.
“It reasonably concluded that eliminating or substantially
reducing the use of pesticides would result in an irretrievable
loss of forage for birds on the refuges,” he said.
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