Western Watersheds Project Not Backing Down in Wyoming Lawsuit
WWP refutes rancher claims and files counterclaims-
Jackson, WY—A month ago the Western Watersheds Project was sued by a group of Wyoming ranchers who alleged the group trespassed in order to collect samples of poor quality water from streams within public grazing allotments on federal land. Now the Western Watersheds Project (WWP) has filed its answer to those claims, refuting all of the ranchers’ allegations and raising counterclaims against the plaintiffs, including their abuse of process for bringing the lawsuit in order to intimidate and destroy Western Watersheds Project and to conceal their own wrongdoing and the illegal environmental conditions on these lands.
“The ranchers really didn’t want the public to find out how much harm their cows were causing to the public waters,” said Travis Bruner, WWP Executive Director. “Instead of spending time and money cleaning up their operations, the ranchers and Karen Budd-Falen are bringing a frivolous lawsuit. It is so clearly intended to silence us, but you’ll note that no one is claiming the data showing the astoundingly poor water quality conditions were wrong.”
Western Watersheds Project collected and submitted water quality data to the Wyoming Department of Water Quality that showed E. coli bacteria occurring at harmful levels. E. coli is a coliform bacteria spread by livestock through defecation in or near to water, and this causes harm to wildlife habitat, endangers drinking supplies and puts people at risk of infection. The Wyoming DEQ is obligated to release a list of the state’s impaired waters. Rather than release the report to the public, the DEQ released the draft to affected ranchers who then concluded, with no additional evidence, that trespass might have occurred up to nine years prior.
Western Watersheds Project is being represented in its response by leading environmental and civil liberties law professors who are taking the case pro bono because it is such an obvious attempt to sabotage the important work the organization does to uncover livestock industry abuses of public trust resources. The attorneys, Justin Marceau and Justin Pidot from the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, support WWP’s efforts to reveal the profound environmental impacts of these grazing operations to the public.
“This lawsuit has all the markings of an attempt to muzzle one of the few groups in the country that holds persons accountable for polluting our public waters. From what I have seen so far, this is really shameful conduct by a group of ranchers with too much to hide and too much money to spend on lawyers harassing small nonprofits,” said Justin Marceau. “Federal law has long relied on groups of concerned citizens, like those involved with the Western Watersheds Project, to monitor pollution and enforce rules designed to protect our shared environment. Trespass law has become a favored tool to which individuals and businesses profiting from environmental degradation turn in an effort to silence criticism and conceal information about the consequences of their activities. Winning is often beside the point to plaintiffs in these lawsuits,” said Justin Pidot, attorney on the case.
“Just filing the lawsuit imposes substantial costs on the defendants and chills citizen involvement in protecting public natural resources. To counter that chill, and protect the crucial role that citizens play in enforcing environment law, it is particularly important for defendants like Western Watersheds Project to have access to high quality, pro bono representation.”
Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan's Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of "Hiking Idaho." He also wrote "Beyond the Tetons" and "Backpacking Wyoming's Teton and Washakie Wilderness." He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.
27 Responses to Western Watersheds Project Not Backing Down in Wyoming Lawsuit
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How do you have water samples tested and remain anonymous ? I would like to have a sample tested from the river as well as a grazing allotment well but do not want to have it done in the county where it is located.
E coli samples have a 6 hour hold time meaning that the analysis has to be run within 6 hours of collecting the sample.
As far as remaining anonymous, the lab can’t legally release any information to anyone other then what is on the chain of custody. If you turn over the results to a public agency that becomes a public record. The public agency may also want the chain of custody to ensure the data is defensible, ie. Correct holding time, sample received in correct temperature range, correct sample container was used. You could redact the information on the chain of custody and the lab sheet with results as that will have a “collected by” line.
Big thanks to WWP and the lawyers taking up their cause pro bono.
Thank you WWP and lawyers willing to pro bono. It is about time these selfish, rich ranchers are held accountable for the damage their cattle are causing to the environment. They have gotten away with inimidation to small groups with their wealth to file law suits with no merit. They need to get their cattle off of our lands and while they are at it they can stop blaming wild horses for the damage their cattle are causing. This group of selfish and rich egotistical ranchers need to be put in their place. They think they own the land and can control any government agency that challenges them.
I am so grateful to WWP and the attorneys helping them
WWP is doing what most of the large national NGO’s won’t touch. Thank You!
I think you are certainly right about this. The big NGO’s think if they are tough on these issues, they will lose donations. In fact, WWP could use some donations right now to show that taking some risks is not a losing strategy.
Hopefully people will help prove its not a losing strategy. I don’t have much to contribute like some big monied investors but I try and distribute it where it matters, WWP will be on the list this year. Thanks for heads up
I think WWP will see an uptake in donations soon.
What audacity – to endanger the welfare of the public via such a frivolous lawsuit. Well, what would we expect from the same livestock agricultural communities that would prefer citizens share and believe their viewpoint that whistleblowers are eco-terrorists?
I’d say these are some VERY dangerous people.
Lets get the “ball” rolling! Just wrote a check for $50 to Western Watershed Project – who’s gonna match it 🙂
The news release doesn’t say whether the case is filed in a WY state (county) court, or federal court. The justice likely meted out for the alleged infractions in the Complaint, or untrue claims and thus sanctions against the plaintiffs (rather their lawyers) may be quite different. Abuse of process could get Budd-Falon a fine under civil procedure Rule 11, if the allegations are baseless, and the plaintiffs knew this from the start, and are using the suit merely for harassment. I’m keeping my fingers crossed, if Budd-Falon used that tactic on behalf of her clients.
Here is one motivating factor for Budd-Falon. She’s been on this mission for some time now:
And, from her law firm’s website, testimony before a House Natural Resources Congressional Committee hearing on changes to the Equal Access to Justice Act – (the hearing actually begins about 21 minutes into this 2.5 hour session). Budd Falon is featured about half-way thru @ 1:21 hours in (by the way I love the guy with the spaghetti strand hanging from his upper lip, almost a caricature from the “Old West.”).
This from the WWP news release: “Just filing the lawsuit imposes substantial costs on the [WWP] defendants ….” It is important to note, that sword cuts both ways.
In all candor, I do believe there are some inequities in the Act, as its original purpose has been more broadly applied than it was believed to intended when enacted some 30 years ago, when it was intended to level the playing field in litigation between the federal government and a private citizen. It does not allow a private entity winner against one of these litigant public interest groups to receive attorney fees if they have a net worth exceeding in $7M (you can still not make much money on that asset base), while a public interest group exceeding the same net worth can receive attorney fees if they win, Sierra Club being one prominent example. And, remember $7M today is the equivalent of about $3.5M thirty years ago (still not that much for a private business with capital at risk, and don’t just think ranching here, because the law applies to all kinds of businesses).
I am in favor of this law being changed, including disclosure of EXACTLY HOW MUCH attorney fees are being reimbursed to a winning party, whoever that might be.
Sorry, Budd-Falon’s testimony at this Congressional hearing begins at about 34 minutes in.
To give some extra information, the complaint is filed in Fremont County, WY in the district court of the Wyoming 9th Judicial District.
Budd-Falon has been on a tear about the Equal Access to Justice Act, but it doesn’t seem to be relevant to either party in this suit.
EAJA – No, not a part of this case, but yet it is an integral part of the greater mission Budd-Falon pursues on behalf of clients known in this suit, or clients unknown.
The WWP news release is also not very specific on whether the alleged trespasses occurred on the federal grazing lease property or PRIVATE property. It would seem most grazing leases on federal lands do not prohibit access to the public (though there can be issues on checkerboard ownership sections, or where property boundaries may be ambiguous or undefined on a continuous landscape. Can you shed a little light on that aspect, and/or post a copy of the Complaint, and the WWP Answer/Counterclaims?
there is no ability to claim trespass on public land, including public lands which constitute grazing allotments.
additionally, even on “private property,” there are a number of things that can vitiate a landowner’s property right to exclude – including explicit easement, but also prescriptive easement – and some interesting county claims included in the response.
seems to me the plaintiff’s claim for damages is pretty weak as well, absent an award of punitive damages, but defendants’ inclusion of the public necessity – or what might likewise be referred to as a ‘public interest’ – defense seems like it could serve as a pretty strong assault to any alleged trespass itself, and also as rebuttal to any argument for an assessment of punitive damages.
Testing for E. coli in raw water is approximately at the level of 8th grade science class. Remember growing stuff in petri dishes ?
Of course, it’s only anecdotal science, but it’s also a sign pointer from previously untested riparian water.
Thankfully , the scientific competency is benched at a low threshhold. Othwerwise it would all go over the heads and Stetsons of the plaintiffs and their attorney…
The issue of the lawsuit concerns trespass and the article did not state whether the samples were legally collected on public or private lands. If it occured on private lands and permission was not granted, then trespass would have occured. Hopefully, the samples were collected on public lands and Western Watersheds coordinated the collection of samples with the public agency.
The outcome of the water samples will be moot if they were collected without permission. It would be very helpful if specific facts are included concerning the title of the article.
A copy of WWP’s answer and the answer to some of the questions posted here in comments is available at this link:
Greta, thanks for posting the link to the WWP legal response. I just read through it, and it sure seems as though the Plaintiffs have no case on the alleged trespasses. I hope WWP prevails in this suit, and the quicker the better.
Thanks Greta. The Answers are not much use without the Complaint to which they respond. Any chance of getting that posted, as well?
Sorry WM, can’t find it online and don’t have a copy handy. I’ll post when/if I can.
WWP really is doing great work and actually takes action! Unlike many other NGO’s.
Has anyone evaluated whether Idaho’s Ag gag law could be used to go after entities conducting similar testing on federal grazing allotments? If that would be considered hindering livestock operations?
The “other side” of the lawsuit. May the facts decide the case, but ultimately will the ranchers become great stewards of the land they so strongly proport and protect streams and lakes from their livestock.
Another opinion of the issue from the other side of the fence: The Western Livestock Journal on August 4, 2014 by associate editor Kerry Halladay: