Judge orders measures to protect native trout from grazing in eastern Oregon’s Malheur National Forest

ONDA, WWP & CBD halt cattle grazing

The Oregon Natural Desert Association’s press release :

PORTLAND, ORE. Jun 16, 2009

Cattle grazing along a steelhead stream, Malheur National Forest. photo: ONDA
Cattle grazing along a steelhead stream, Malheur National Forest. photo: ONDA

Fish advocates applauded a federal judge’s decision yesterday to protect native steelhead trout in the John Day River basin. The court order temporarily halts cattle grazing within important native trout streams in eastern Oregon’s Malheur National Forest. This latest round of the decade-long litigation targets, as the court put it, “repeated failures” by the Forest Service to address grazing impacts to fish habitat. The steelhead, an iconic Pacific Northwest native trout, is listed under the Endangered Species Act as a “threatened” species in danger of extinction.

Grazing has badly damaged stream and riparian habitats along more than 230 miles of streams, according to evidence gathered by ONDA and the Forest Service.  The survey data show the agency has been unable to meet ecological standards to conserve steelhead. The standards, established by the Forest Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), are meant to protect the key elements of healthy fish habitat. They include protection of stable stream banks and overhanging vegetation that keep streams clear and cold for steelhead and other native trout. According to field surveys conducted by a team of experts for ONDA, the Forest Service’s grazing program has resulted in damaged stream banks far exceeding federal standards.

“The Court’s order once again reinforces the position we’ve taken with the Forest Service for a decade now,” said ONDA executive director Brent Fenty. “Our hope is that the injunction will give the Forest Service the chance to do the right thing and bring its grazing program in line with what the Endangered Species Act requires to protect native trout in forest streams.”

After several years of monitoring chronic overgrazing on the Malheur National Forest, ONDA filed the first of several cases against the Forest Service in 2003. In 2006, a federal judge in Portland ruled that the agencies’ grazing plan violated the Endangered Species Act. In 2007, the agencies issued a new grazing plan to guide grazing throughout the forest. Because the plan actually increased grazing levels and weakened the Forest Service’s ability to enforce its own ecological health standards, ONDA challenged the plan in December 2007.

In May 2008, Judge Ancer Haggerty agreed that ONDA was likely to win its case and preliminarily banned grazing on parts of the forest. That order protected more than 120,000 acres of public land and more than 90 miles of important steelhead streams from another year of cattle damage.

Following last year’s ruling, both ONDA and federal agencies studied grazing impacts in the upper John Day basin. Those data showed that grazing continued to result in violations of its own bank alteration standard, in some cases by more than five times the Forest Service standard. By contrast, in the places where the court barred grazing last year, just a single year of rest allowed for significant initial recovery of riparian plant communities, stream channels and fish habitat.

In today’s order, the court enjoined grazing until the Forest Service complies with a series of promised mitigation and monitoring measures intended to ensure against further damage to fish habitat this summer. The protective measures cover 330,000 acres and 235 miles of streams on the forest. The court also indicated it would stop grazing mid-season if the Forest Service failed to comply with the order. In the ruling, Judge Haggerty states, “The time has come for the Forest Service to adaptively manage these allotments in response to conditions on the ground rather than in reaction to this court’s rulings.”

“Sadly, Forest Service negligence and mismanagement is driving the steelhead toward extinction rather than recovery,” Fenty said. “These streams will take time to recover but this decision ensures that the Forest Service must abide by its own rules and regulations and that steelhead will be conserved for current and future generations.”

The Malheur National Forest is located in eastern Oregon’s Blue Mountains. It includes portions of the Upper John Day, Middle Fork John Day, North Fork John Day, and Malheur Rivers. The 281-mile long John Day River is one of the longest undammed rivers in the continental United States. The river and its hundreds of miles of tributary streams on the Malheur National Forest provide spawning, rearing and migratory habitat for the largest naturally spawning, native stock of wild steelhead remaining in the Columbia River basin.

ONDA is joined in the litigation by the Center for Biological Diversity and Western Watersheds Project.




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Brian Ertz