BLM Told to Revisit Montana Grazing Plan
(CN) – The Bureau of Land Management did not violate environmental law by allowing grazing at the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument, the 9th Circuit ruled Friday, but it needs to take a closer look at how that will affect a portion of the scenic land.
The federal appeals panel in Seattle partially revived a lawsuit brought by an environmental group and two members who claimed the BLM ignored the detrimental impacts of livestock grazing on some of the monuments protected features, including riparian areas, cottonwood gallery forest ecosystems and sage-grouse habitat.
The 9th Circuit called the 377,000-acre monument in northern Montana “an area of unparalleled scenic beauty, great geological and biological importance, and special historical significance.”
It has remained largely unchanged since Lewis and Clark explored it in 1805. The land, which President Bill Clinton designated a National Monument in 2001, contains 149 miles of the Upper Missouri River and some of the largest elk and big horn sheep herds in the United States.
Environmentalists sued in 2009 when the BLM approved a management plan that prioritized cattle grazing, oil and gas development, and motorized recreation over conservation.
U.S. District Judge Sam Haddon granted summary judgment to the agency in 2011, finding that the BLM abided by “multiple use principles” to protect the monument.
The Western Watersheds Project and two of its members appealed, arguing their case with the Montana Wilderness Society, which filed a similar lawsuit challenging the grazing and development plan.
Overgrazing can reduce habitat quality for the greater sage-grouse, degrade water quality and prevent the regeneration of cottonwood and willow trees along the Missouri River, according to the ruling.
The three-judge panel said the agency’s decision to allow grazing under existing standards was “reasonable and consistent” with the law. Clinton’s proclamation “did not mandate changes to BLM’s grazing management so long as Monument objects were protected,” Judge Ronald Gould wrote for the panel.
Environmentalists argued that the existing standards were not strict enough, but the 9th Circuit said that issue was not before the court.
“This case is not about the legitimacy of the [existing] standards,” Gould wrote. “It is about the legitimacy of BLM’s decision to incorporate those standards into the Breaks Resource Plan.”
He added: “It may be true that BLM could adopt more stringent standards for rangeland health, but it does not follow that BLM’s decision not to do so violates the proclamation and [the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976]. We will not substitute our judgment for that of the agency.”
The Western Watersheds Project also argued that the agency violated federal law by failing to take a “hard look” at grazing impacts, and by refusing to consider reducing or eliminating grazing as viable alternatives.
The court disagreed, saying the agency had “discussed grazing impacts in detail” and was not required to consider no- or reduced-grazing alternatives.
But the court sided with environmentalists on their claim that the BLM should have considered grazing reduction or elimination when renewing a 10-year grazing license for a portion of the monument called the Woodhawk Allotment.
“We are troubled by BLM’s decision not to consider a reduced- or no-grazing alternative at the site-specific level, having chosen not to perform that review at the programmatic level,” Gould wrote.
“Where modification of grazing practices is not considered at a programmatic level for the full Monument area, it is all the more important that agency actions on site-specific areas give a hard and careful look at grazing impacts on Monument objects.”
The panel reversed summary judgment for the BLM on the Woodhawk claim and remanded, saying the agency must either fix its environmental assessment of the allotment or prepare a more detailed analysis.
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