Ranchers defeat attempt to stop federal land grazing

By Dunn, Carney, Allen, Higgins & Tongue

In an order issued late on June 15th, Oregon Federal District Court Judge Ancer Haggerty determined that environmental groups failed to show “that all grazing must cease” on certain allotments in the Malheur National Forest.  Reversing an order from 2008 that stopped grazing on 100,000 acres of federal forest lands, and denying a request to enjoin grazing on an additional 200,000 acres in 2009, Judge Haggerty determined that ranchers and the Forest Service had demonstrated that grazing could continue without harm to threatened steelhead.

The ruling directly impacts seventeen ranches in Grant County but has ramification on the viability of public lands grazing throughout the West.  The Oregon Natural Desert Association, Western Watersheds Project, and the Center for Biological Diversity filed for a preliminary injunction in the ONDA v. Kimball case on April 10, 2009.  If the preliminary injunction had been granted, nearly 3400 cows would have been displaced, causing significant harm to the livestock industry and the suffering economy of Grant County.

Judge Haggerty’s ruling provides ranchers their first victory in a case originally filed by the Oregon Natural Desert Association to address claimed deficiencies in a steelhead biological opinion from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS).  In the preliminary injunction motion, the environmentalists claimed that the Forest Service and NMFS failed to restrict grazing to protect listed steelhead.  They based many of their claims on information they have collected using a bank alteration “standard.”

Elizabeth Howard, attorney for the ranchers, indicated that “the bank alteration standard has little to no relevance to efforts to protect steelhead.  Yet, it is being used to try to end grazing that the experts say is maintaining a vibrant, healthy ecosystem on the Malheur National Forest.”  In fact, after finding exceedences of the bank alteration standard in a few locations in 2008, the Forest Service made a last minute decision to rest the Long Creek Allotment, forcing ranchers to find alternative pasture shortly before livestock turnout.  Now, after reviewing conditions this spring, experts agree that this very allotment is in excellent condition and was not negatively affected by grazing in 2008.

Ranchers became involved in this case in order to force the agencies to fix the bank alteration standard because it was not intended to be used as a method to assess grazing impacts to steelhead.  “After testimony from the Forest Service’s experts at the hearing on June 12th, it is more clear than ever that the bank alteration standard has been improperly relied upon by NMFS,” said local rancher Ken Brooks.  Ranchers hope that NMFS will fix the biological opinion before it causes further harm to ranchers that rely on federal lands to maintain economically and environmentally sustainable operations.  Ranchers recently learned that NMFS was trying to force the same bank alteration standard on the Prineville BLM District through a biological opinion there.

Local rancher Ken Holliday voiced his concern, “We have already seen the harm caused with this standard here.  Hopefully, NMFS has recognized it needs to use a better standard and will not spread the damage it caused here.”

The ranchers’ efforts to halt the agencies’ use of the bank alteration standard continue.  Contributions to this effort can be made to the Oregon Cattleman’s Stewardship Fund at 3415 Commercial Street SE, Ste. E, Salem, Oregon 97302-4668.

About Dunn, Carney, Allen, Higgins & Tongue

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