Federal Court Decision Holds That Protecting Sage-Grouse Must Take Priority Over Livestock Grazing in Owyhee Canyonlands and beyond in Southwest Idaho

Early last week the federal district court of Idaho affirmed Western Watersheds Project’s challenge to five Bureau of Land Management (BLM) grazing decisions in southwest Idaho’s Owyhee Canyonlands that harmed Greater sage-grouse.

Judge rules SW Idaho grazing allotments illegal Associated Press 2/13/2012

“Because the grazing permits are unlawful, BLM has no authority to continue grazing on these allotments,” [said Todd Tucci, Advocates for the West attorney]

The repercussions of this court decision are likely to be far-reaching.  The court’s decision on these five allotments serve as a test case setting the standard by which hundreds of on-the-ground level BLM grazing decisions in southwest Idaho will be challenged.

This decision is also important as it serves as a strong indictment of the effectiveness of federal land-managers’ implementation and enforcement of “regulatory mechanisms” established within their own land-use management plans to protect the imperiled sage grouse.

Livestock grazing negatively impacts sage grouse habitat in a variety of ways.  Livestock remove forbs (wildflowers) and grasses essential to survival and recruitment of baby sage grouse.  Livestock developments, including water tanks pipelines and fencing, fragment habitat and provide roosts for predators.  The list goes on and on.

The Big Picture

WWP and Advocates’ ultimate vision is to foster a new conservation ethic in public land and wildlife management agencies that is protective of the west’s imperiled Sagebrush Sea.  The effort has largely relied on judicial challenges aimed at enforcing existing laws that the groups argue, if properly administered, would themselves secure meaningful restoration of sagebrush habitats across western public lands.  The groups have generally relied on a three-pronged approach:

Greater Sage-grouse distribution

An effort to actively push for Endangered Species Act protections for Greater Sage-grouse across its range – an effort that has already sent local, state and federal public land and wildlife managers scrambling, ultimately prompting efforts and policy changes to establish lesser-level protections that would otherwise not exist were it not in an effort to prevent federal listing.

WWP and Advocates have succesfully brought wide-sweeping challenge of agency land-use administration at the  programatic planning level.

And finally, as is the case here – the groups have executed direct challenges to on-the-ground decisions at the land-use level, illustrating how broader agency policies and existing statutes are – or are not – being properly administered and what that means for imperiled species, wildlife habitats, water and other environmental values on-the-ground.

Though Western Watersheds Project’s ultimate aim of securing Endangered Species Act protections for Greater sage-grouse is not yet realized, each of the three legs of this effort are executed in such a way that they bolster each-other.   On-the-ground level court challenges such as these are critical steps laying the groundwork in the judicial record documenting systemic failures of federal land-managers to execute agencies’ self-imposed protections for habitats their own scientists deem important.

On the Ground

Livestock grazing severely degrades wildlife habitat on the East Castle creek Allotment, photo: Katie Fite, WWP.

Because sage-grouse are imperiled and BLM policy sets their protection as a priority (designated “sensitive species” worthy of protections at least equivalent to Endangered Species List “candidate species”), other land uses that conflict with sage grouse, such as public lands ranching, must be adequately addressed.  Logically, given BLM’s own admission that livestock grazing has impacted sage grouse habitat, that ought mean that when decision-makers renew permits they address those impacts by reducing the impact – i.e. number of livestock that graze or the duration that livestock persist on the public lands impacted.  Instead, as is the case on the five allotments at issue in this test case, land-managers have refused to make adequate adjustments permitting the same number of livestock for the same duration on the allotments at issue.  These failures demonstrate that there exists a strong agency/industry bias to maintain the status quo – and that so long as this bias is allowed to direct management, sage grouse will continue to decline.  WWP and Advocates argue that these shortcomings are pervasive across the West – and the groups will have the opportunity to demonstrate as much with the hundreds of grazing decisions yet to be decided in this ongoing litigation.

Such agency failures to effectively administer necessary protections will be a strong variable informing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (USFWS) final decision on the adequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms to protect sage grouse, thus whether it is necessary to extend the full protections of the Endangered Species Act to Greater sage-grouse as USFWS approaches a 2015 deadline on a final listing decision.

Supporting WWP’s contention that protections are not being adequately enforced Judge Winmill’s 55-page order validated each of Western Watersheds Project’s claims that BLM violated the National Environmental Policy Act, the Federal Land Policy Management Act, the Fundamentals of Rangeland Health and the Bureau of Land Management’s Owyhee and Bruneau Field Offices’ own Range Management Plans (RMPs).

Judge Winmill found that BLM decisions to renew unchanged grazing have failed to prioritize protections for the charismatic native bird, a condition BLM’s own RMPs established, and that:

“To the extent livestock and sage grouse conflict, it is grazing that must yield.”

This court order gives decision-makers a unique insight into how their lofty high-level memorandums, superfluous rule-making processes, and internal policies crafted in offices in D.C. are pretty much ignored by the boots on-the-ground, ultimately failing to provide ‘adequacy’ as existing regulatory mechanisms that theoretically ought protect sage grouse.

The decision: BLM misses.  Big Time.

The bar has been set for many public land livestock grazing allotments in southwestern Idaho, it will be interesting to see whether the BLM has enough will and judicial cover to buck the industry/political pressure that has been driving agency mis-administration of its own policy in a direction favorable to grazing, and consequently driving sage grouse populations into the ground, for decades; OR whether the BLM is irretrievably captured by Livestock and incapable of providing necessary protections for sage-grouse regardless of internal policy.

More importantly, the positive changes prompted through the relief of livestock impacts on sagebrush habitat and wildlife in the Owyhee Canyonlands following this important decision will be exciting to observe in coming years.

About The Author

Brian Ertz

13 Responses to “Grazing Must Yield” On Public Lands In Southwestern Idaho

  1. aves says:

    Excellent news!

  2. Tom Page says:

    It will be interesting to see how this plays out. The more I read of historical accounts and mid-20th century reports on sage grouse, the more I become convinced that the real problem we face with sage grouse mortality is chick nutrition, which means forbs and bugs. What I’m not so sure about is whether the current lack of forbs/bugs around the wet areas can be attributed entirely to decades of livestock grazing…these wet areas were far more degraded in 1950, and there were way more cows/sheep out there, yet the sage grouse populations were off-the-charts at that time. I thought it might have something to do with the intensive pred control, but then I read Patterson’s 1952 study “Sage Grouse in Wyoming” and he records as much predation/nest failure as we have now…go figure. The one striking difference I find between that report and current ones is the number of surviving chicks/hen, which is way less now than it was at that time.

    I’m beginning to wonder if climate change and longer droughts are having a greater effect on forbs/bugs than is generally considered.

    And finally, when I look at the paleoecological record over the last 7,500 years in our area, very few sage grouse bones are recorded in cookfire sites or packrat middens. Now bird bones are fragile, and may not be accurately presented in the record because of this, but it makes me curious to know if the sage grouse numbers from 1950-1980 were something of an anomaly, much like the huge boom in those two other prominent sagebrush steppe species (mule deer and antelope) at the same time.

    • Salle says:

      that’s an interesting thought, Tom Page. I wonder if there is such a correlation, it sounds credible on the surface.

      I was thinking, as I read your comment, that during the period of 1950 – 1980 there wasn’t the high volume of OHV/ATVs racing around the countryside and though there was less grazing there was also “chaining” of the sagedeserts for cattle regardless of how many were actually out there the idea was to make room for grass instead of sage to accommodate more; and there was also less concern over the residual effects of chemical spraying, mining residuals, and lest we forget the nuclear bomb testing that went on for some time out there… wonder if some of those 20th century additives are factors.

      • Tom Page says:

        Salle –

        Yes, there’s certainly the possibility that postwar pesticides (and other bad stuff in the air/water) put a long-term damper on insect populations. I’m not sure how ATV/OHV’s would have much of an impact though.

        Maybe I misread your comment, but it’s my understanding there were more livestock on the range in 1950 than now, not fewer as you suggest.

        My personal theory for the boom in sagebrush steppe animals at that time has to do with the recovery of the range from the incredible beating it took during the 1930’s. I’ve got photos from that era that I hardly recognize. As the stock numbers declined from 1939-1960, the recovering range started to grow a lot of young tasty plants, and subsequently a lot more animals. Now that we’re back to old plants that don’t have much in between (for several reasons, including grazing), and the climate is warmer and drier, the nutritional levels are way down. That’s my completely unscientific layman’s theory…

  3. Ken Cole says:

    I attended the Joint hearing on sage grouse yesterday and I don’t think that the magnitude of this issue has really struck home with people yet. I think the legislators finally got the picture as there were audible gasps at one point.

    I think that it has finally struck home with a lot of people that land management will have to change and that the agencies can no longer twiddle there thumbs and hand everything to ranchers anymore. I just don’t think that the general public understands the magnitude of the issue.

    If the agencies continue down the path that they have been following for the last several decades then sage grouse will be listed. It’s very clear now. If the agencies don’t get it right this time then there isn’t going to be another chance.

    Let’s face it, there is no other use of lands that could really be responsible for the declines in sage grouse we have seen here in Idaho. Livestock grazing has caused long term damage to our ecosystems and the land is not as resilient as it once was. So much land is past a tipping point that recovery is impossible. We can’t sacrifice any more for subsidized hamburgers.

  4. I grew up in Sage Grouse country in the Lost River Valley of Idaho and hunted them as a teenager. I also occasionally spend some time sitting in a blind photographing these interesting birds.
    Starting in the mid-late 1950s, the BLM, and ranchers with large areas of Sagebrush, plowed and sprayed the sagebrush(And Forbes) and replaced them with Crested Wheatgrass. My father in law was an Idaho Grassman of the Year for plowing up a couple of thousand acres of Sage and replanting it with thick stand of Crested Wheatgrass. This eliminated the Sage that these birds need for food and shelter all winter and the forbes that the hens, chicks and insects need in the spring and summer. Local Sage Grouse populations crashed.This scene was repeated all over the west. Parts of Yellowstone near Gardiner were plowed and seeded to crested wheatgrass as well.
    When I photograph Sage Grouse Leks today, I see them covered with invasive weeds (Cheatgrass, Russian Thistle(Tumbleweed) and Mustard Weed), which encumber the males as they strut.
    Large areas(Thousands of square miles) of former Sage Grouse habitat, with its’ mix of Sage, native bunch grasses and wildflowers is now an ugly mess of introduced cheatgrass, weeds and crested wheatgrass. Over-Grazing by domestic livestock keeps it that way.

    • skyrim says:

      (off topic, sorry)
      Larry, Your new “BRADFORD PLATE COLLECTION” Wolves of Yellowstone, looks incredible.
      Any shows out west planned for summer?

    • Tom Page says:

      Larry –

      I’ve wondered about the long-term impact of cwg plantings, but nothing is ever simple, I guess. We’ve got a huge chunk of ground on one of our allotments that was planted in cwg in the 60’s and it has since returned almost entirely to sagebrush and other native species. Yet, that allotment is basically void of sage grouse now, although there are populations to the immediate north and south. Grasses and forbs are marginal, and the soil is very poor in this location. I’m interested to see what happens with sage grouse on this allotment, as one of our primary flow/stream restoration projects should vastly improve the dried up streamchannel. I’ve seen encouraging things already, and even a sage grouse track or two this winter.

      It’s also worth noting that the Upper Pahsimeroi has a fairly intact component of sagebrush over a very large area, with virtually no cheat, knapweed, etc., yet populations are still slowly declining there.

      Regarding your last comment…I’ve never seen a disturbed site covered in invasives return to native cover without help. So, while overgrazing likely helped put it in that state, I don’t think it necessarily follows that taking the cows off would magically make the weeds go away.

      • Tom Page says:

        One correction…actually I have seen one riparian site in Southcentral Idaho change from cheat/mustard back to Great Basin Wild Rye without assistance. A friend showed me some amazing timelapse photos from 2002-2010. I haven’t seen an upland site do that, however.

  5. skyrim says:

    Of course we then have idiots from my state spouting comments like this:
    According to (Jason (R) Utah) Chaffetz, “The only good place for a sage grouse to be listed is on the menu of a French bistro.”
    A bigger problem is that I’m afraid he has long (Anal Hatch like)career ahead of him and he is of breeding age……

    • Maska says:

      Charming. This reminds me of the time some years ago when we went into the Catron County (NM) Courthouse to get some information and found a recipe for Mexican spotted owl on the bulletin board.

  6. Larry Keeney says:

    WWP is the best thing that has ever happened to the environment since the ice age. We know the environment is very complicated. Whether the removal of cows and sheep is entirely responsible for the decline of SG or not anything that is done to allow a natural environment to exist has the utmost value. It is just appalling that people with college degrees in range, forest and wildlife management have to be ordered to do the right thing by person with a law degree. Thank goodness we have lawyers and people willing to run WWP.


February 2012


‎"At some point we must draw a line across the ground of our home and our being, drive a spear into the land and say to the bulldozers, earthmovers, government and corporations, “thus far and no further.” If we do not, we shall later feel, instead of pride, the regret of Thoreau, that good but overly-bookish man, who wrote, near the end of his life, “If I repent of anything it is likely to be my good behaviour."

~ Edward Abbey