Ag groups file amicus brief over Idaho federal land management plans

Amanda Radke
for Tri-State Livestock News
Sage grouse are not only the number one priority, but the only priority in new land management plans introduced by the BLM and USFS, ag groups contend. Though the birds are not protected under a threatened or endangered species listing, ag groups are saying the public lands are being managed as though they are. Photo by Ken Miracle.

When the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service determined that listing the sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act was not warranted, ranchers were relieved to know that they would still have access to federal lands where they could graze their livestock. However, the industry is now concerned about newly revised plans that would be more restrictive than if the sage grouse had been listed as an endangered species.

As a result, a lawsuit brought by Idaho Governor Butch Otter is challenging the revised federal land management plan impacting federal lands, which was issued in November 2015 by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and U.S. Forest Service. The state argues that the revised plans ignore the congressional mandate, which allows for federal lands to be managed for multiple uses. The plans, as written, would manage millions of acres of land in Idaho for one use and a single species — the sage grouse.

Also joining the legal battle against the Western Watersheds Project, WildEarth Guardians, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Prairie Hills Audubon Society is Governor Matt Mead on behalf of the state of Wyoming. The state is stressing Wyoming’s efforts to protect the sage grouse and improve habitat, and in a recent press release, Mead said, “This lawsuit is another indication that the Endangered Species Act needs fixed. Successful conservation efforts are challenged instead of celebrated.”

In a show of support for these states, several agricultural organizations, including the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, Public Lands Council, Idaho Cattle Association, American Farm Bureau Federation and Idaho Farm Bureau Federation have filed an amicus brief, citing the potential problems with the revised plans.

“We felt very strongly about putting together this brief to educate the courts about how the plan will negate conservation efforts being made at the state level, increase regulations on grazing, and ultimately, hurt the bird the plan is trying to protect.” Wyatt Prescott, Idaho Cattle Association executive vice president

“The proposed plans completely circumvent the rule-making process,” said Wyatt Prescott, Ida-ho Cattle Association executive vice president. “We felt very strongly about putting together this brief to educate the courts about how the plan will negate conservation efforts being made at the state level, increase regulations on grazing, and ultimately, hurt the bird the plan is trying to protect.”

Prescott explained that there are two primary threats to the sage grouse — wildfires and invasive species.

“Grazing can be a great tool to helping manage the threats of wildfires and invasive species,” said Prescott. “A secondary threat to sage grouse is improper grazing; however, this rule shifts the burden to all grazing, even though it’s not a primary threat and when done properly actually helps eliminate some of these threats to the sage grouse.”

Because of on-the-ground conservation efforts in states like Idaho and Wyoming to provide ample habitat for the sage grouse, the bird population is up 63 percent in the last two years. What’s more, thanks to the NRCS Sage Grouse Initiative implemented by partnerships between private land-owners and the USDA, 4.4 million acres of habitat were restored while also continuing to be working landscapes for area producers. However, Prescott said these efforts will be negated should the plan come to fruition.

“The plan doesn’t actually do anything to help the birds; it’s just a tool to further management of grazing rights and could potentially even harm the sage grouse population,” said Prescott. “We are supporting Idaho in this effort and hoping our brief will explain to the court how the plans didn’t allow for public comment, as well as demonstrate the real damages that could occur if this plan is put into place. We want to show the judge that the plan isn’t supported by science. It doesn’t allow for the land to be used by multiple users, and it doesn’t support the sage grouse population.”

“For more than a decade Wyoming has engaged in the largest single-species conservation effort ever undertaken,” added Mead in the press release. “We worked directly with the energy industry, agriculture, sportsmen and conservationists to develop the conservation plan. These efforts have resulted in a model for developing wildlife conservation. That model balances the needs of Greater sage-grouse and its habitat while minimizing adverse effects on the economy of the State of Wyoming.”

Danielle Quist, AFBF senior counsel for public policy, explained how the amicus brief works to educate the courts and support the state of Idaho in this fight against the revised plans.

“We aren’t parties to the case,” she said. “We filed the amicus brief in support of the state of Idaho. It offers some education to the court and provides additional arguments. The federal government will have a chance to reply to the arguments made by the state of Idaho, and once the judge has all of the materials in front of him, he will schedule a time for a hearing and will make a decision on this case. If Idaho wins any of the complaints filed, the judge will then need to decide which parts of the plan gets cut or revised. It all comes down to how well the parties argue their points.”

Quist said there have been several procedural problems with the revised plan, most troubling of them all is the documents were not posted for public comment.

“With the rule-making process, you have to give the public and opportunity to provide meaningful comments,” she said. “Real stakeholders didn’t have a chance to comment about how the rule might impact them, which violates the steps needed in order for a rule to become a law. With this amicus brief, we simply want to point out these concerns to the courts and explain the problems with these land use management plans.”

“Our concern when we started looking at legal challenges of this plan was the broader deal that was cut,” added Ryan Yates, AFBF congressional relations director. “Some of the requirements of the plans go over and beyond the authority granted to those agencies. Generically, we saw Endangered Species Act-type restrictions woven into the plans, which are outside of the scope of those authorities. If we want to say the sage grouse is indeed in need of protection, then list them, but if not, don’t use a backdoor policy to list them. Instead, look for incentives for land-owners to provide the type of habitat needed for these species, which many producers have al-ready done. Farmers and ranchers for generations have been great stewards of their land and will continue this conservation ethic. Ultimately, with this plan, we will see a decrease in opportunities for ranch management through grazing practices, and that’s our major concern.”

With increasing concerns about future use of federal lands, many ranchers in the area are watching closely to hear the results of this lawsuit.

“We felt the need to weigh in on this lawsuit because we felt the plans were handled in a clumsy and inefficient way,” said Ethan Lane, Public Lands Council executive director. “By circumventing the Endangered Species Act and creating a deficit listing through other plans, we feel the Interior Department has gone into new territory that is inappropriate, so we wanted to hit the breaks on this and hopefully get things back on the right track.”

Lane stressed that some of the standards listed in the plan seem to be one-size-fits-all management plans that would be difficult to adhere to in many areas. For example, a seven-inc grass stubble height standard was included in the plan, and although it is intended as a guide-line, Lane fears the number will eventually become the standard.

“While the seven-inch guideline is intended to be a guideline, I fear that without studying the ecological potentials of various sites (where, for example, the stubble height might only be four-inches tall), this number will eventually become the enforced standard,” said Lane. “My personal feeling is the goal of many environmentalist groups who are pushing for regulations on cattle grazing don’t actually want to achieve the best landscape for the federal land; they want to shut down grazing and all human activity in the West. At the end of the day, we want the court to re-member that it was the Sage Grouse Initiative, millions of acres of habitat has been created and the sage grouse population has greatly improved. That is the result of on-the-ground partner-ships and has nothing to do with federal plans.”