Western Watersheds: Group works many anglesWritten by Jennifer Womack
FOIA requests, state grazing lease attempts, ESA pursuits, water quality challenges, litigation and more used by group to end livestock grazing on state and federal lands
Cheyenne – Using every angle imaginable, Idaho-based Western Watersheds Project (WWP) pursues its goal to end livestock grazing on public lands in western states, Wyoming included.
Typical newspaper headlines mention a lawsuit here and an Endangered Species Act (ESA) petition there, but the biggest impact may be in the cumulative effects on ranching, agencies and natural resources. WWP’s Jonathan Ratner doesn’t hesitate when he says his group wants to end livestock grazing on western public lands. That leaves little room for negotiation.
“It’s huge,” says Wyoming Association of Conservation Districts Executive Director Bobbie Frank. “They’re continually challenging every permit; they’re tying up the agencies in terms of time spent on the FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests and lawsuits and on permit appeals.”
Ratner has been with the WWP for multiple years as its Wyoming director. Sean Sheehan of Cody recently joined as WWP’s Northern Wyoming Field Director. Wyoming also has a presence on the WWP Advisory Board with University of Wyoming professor Deb Donahue, known for her anti-grazing book.
Mark Archer, who oversees FOIA requests for BLM in Wyoming, says of 34 requests on the log right now, half stem from WWP. Of the 80 to 100 requests received annually, Archer says WWP submits about 20 percent and usually qualifies to have its requests fulfilled free of charge. “Two separate ones are from Idaho and the others are from Jonathan Ratner,” says Archer noting an increase in requests.
“The range staff with BLM has conveyed to me that they’re getting consumed with FOIA requests,” says Wyoming State Grazing Board Consultant Dick Loper. “There’s been enough of those coming in that the range staff simply can’t get to our issues if there is a FOIA request going on.” Loper believes BLM needs to be more conservative in its willingness to pay for the requests. “These requests have no social redeeming value,” he notes.
Of appeals filed on BLM grazing decisions, Loper says, “Most of the appeals I’ve read are full of boiler plate language and not specific to the permit. It’s the same old language, but BLM has to respond to each one of those at the same level of detail.”
“We’re probably getting between five or eight a year,” says Bernie Bornong of the growing number of FOIA requests on the Bighorn National Forest. He estimates all together the requests consume about one half of an employee year and that doesn’t include time spent preparing materials for litigation. “So far the forest has been bearing the costs,” says Bornong, noting that FOIA includes a clause that allows requests to be met free of charge if intended for public good or education. He says, “WWP has claimed that fee waiver.”
“When they’re diverting time and talent to answer FOIA requests they cannot serve the greater American public,” says Kathleen Jachowski, Executive Director of Guardians of the Range. “All they’re doing is serving an agenda-driven group.” Jachowski says their actions delay work on the ground to the detriment of wildlife, range resources and public lands grazers.
“They’re not informing the public,” says Wyoming Stock Growers Association Executive Vice President Jim Magagna. “They’re gathering information for a very narrow purpose of removing livestock from federal lands.”
When the Public Lands Council met in Reno, Nev. early February, WWP-initiated lawsuits took center stage in discussions. WWP successfully overturned revised BLM grazing regulations in Judge Winmill’s 9th Circuit court room. While federal lands grazers plan to appeal, it’s costing a great deal of time and money. Among the issues at hand is whether or not grazing permit holders can have partial ownership in range improvements they’ve helped fund.
Also taking place in Winmill’s courtroom was the group’s efforts to force the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to revisit Endangered Species Act (ESA) status for the sage grouse. Winmill’s recent decision has prompted the FWS to spend the next year or more reviewing the bird’s status, again. As yet another example of the group looking to use the ESA to attain its goals, they sought a court order for the FWS to re-evaluate its listing decision regarding the pygmy rabbit, another sagebrush obligate species.
Wyoming Farm Bureau Executive Vice President Ken Hamilton notes the group’s extensive toolbox from which it can draw. In the case of the sage grouse the courts said WWP violated NEPA, the ESA and the Federal Land Management and Policy Act (FLMPA). Hamilton says with a budget of between seven and eight hundred thousand, a large part is directed toward staff looking for opportunities to move their agenda forward and litigation.
In a case that proved to be a success for the ranching community, WWP sued the Forest Service over grazing in the Pole Mountain area between Laramie and Cheyenne citing Preble’s meadow jumping mouse habitat and water quality as the reasoning. “I don’t think they’re going to quit,” says Dan Frank, a Cheyenne attorney who represented the ranchers as interveners in the case. “I think this was an exploratory case to see if they can get anywhere. They’re going to take it back and re-evaluate and see if there are any chinks in the armor to go after these.”
As testimony to the likelihood of future such challenges, WWP has an approved Sampling Analysis Plan (SAP) with the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality. While the Roundup was told an initial data submission from the group was rejected, future work remains likely.
“They’ve had a fair amount of success in one courtroom in the 9th Circuit,” says Wyoming Wool Growers Association Executive Vice President Bryce Reece. In Idaho the group has ended sheep grazing on federal lands. Reece predicts Wyoming courts will be less receptive to the group and that in the case of bighorns and domestic sheep, science will prevail. “The science is coming out pretty strongly that bighorn sheep die off regardless of the presence of domestic sheep,” says Reece.
At the state level WWP has unsuccessfully worked to acquire grazing permits on state lands. “They did file some competing lease applications that were rejected at our board meeting on the Feb. 7,” says Office of State Lands and Investments Director Lynne Boomgaarden of WWP’s most recent effort to lease state lands. A law passed by the Wyoming Legislature just one year ago says Wyoming intends to lease its lands to those with a true use for the forage.
Despite the science, ranchers and the individuals who represent them are left fighting battle after battle to prove their point. “That’s the frustrating part,” says B. Frank. “We have to respond individually to everything they’re doing and we’re not able to address the bigger issue, which is the laws that allow them to continually make these challenges.”
“I wish they’d look at the bigger picture,” says Loper. “Their impact on BLM is not serving the environment, only the agenda they support. We’ve got to get BLM back to working on the ground and doubling the agency’s staff is not the solution.”
“One of the best things producers can have is their monitoring information,” says Wyoming Farm Bureau’s Brett Moline. “To have some hard data, especially a few years of it, will take a lot of wind out of their sails.”
“Monitoring is paramount,” says Magagna. “If you don’t have data and they do, it doesn’t matter as to the quality of their data if theirs is the only data.”
“We need to work hand-in-hand with state and federal agencies to make sure we have a united front in addressing them,” says B. Frank.