The Hailey-based Western Watersheds Project filed a lawsuit in federal court last week challenging decisions by the BLM to extend the grazing season and allow construction of livestock infrastructure on sage-grouse habitat that is partly within Craters of the Moon National Monument.
The suit addresses approval of 15 sheep grazing permits for the 236,990-acre Big Desert Sheep allotment on the east side of the national monument. The allotment includes more than 8,000 acres of the Great Rift Wilderness Study Area, which has been recommended by the BLM for designation as wilderness.
The complaint asks the court to reverse the decision of an administrative law judge in July denying Western Watershed Project’s appeal of the BLM’s actions, order the agency to conduct an environmental impact statement and enjoin construction of new livestock-oriented infrastructure.
The suit especially objects to the BLM’s decision to expand the grazing season by 40 days and allow 17 miles of new fencing in priority habitat for sage grouse.
“Fences pose known collision risks for the low-flying bird, and changes to the season of use result in new impacts during its critical breeding and nesting periods,” states a news release from the conservation organization.
The complaint contends that the approvals violate the BLM’s management guidelines to protect sage grouse and their habitat. It also claims that they violate the BLM’s “National Sage Grouse Habitat Conservation Strategy,” which it submitted to the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service as part of that agency’s decision-making on whether to list sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act. The strategy includes avoidance of fence construction that disturbs sage-grouse habitat and adoption of grazing policies that preserve native vegetation.
“BLM keeps saying that they are taking the conservation of sage grouse seriously,” said Kristin Ruether, Western Watersheds Project’s senior attorney. “If that were true, these decisions would have never been issued. To actually increase sheep impacts in important sage-grouse habitat is the exact opposite of what this species needs. The potential for harm is disclosed in the agency’s own documents, and yet they are going ahead with the projects anyway.”
According to the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, there are nine active sage-grouse leks on the allotment and 21 additional occupied leks within five miles. Monitoring data reveal serious declines in lek attendance, from around 50 males per lek in 1951 to just 10 males per lek in 2013.
“These declines necessitate immediate protections, something the BLM’s decisions fail to provide,” the press release stated. “Instead, the decisions allow livestock on the allotment earlier in the spring and later into the summer, and authorize the creation of a 5,800-acre ‘forage reserve’ that can be used by grazing permittees when conditions elsewhere are too poor to continue grazing. The forage reserve would require new fencing within close proximity to sage-grouse leks.”
The decisions also permit new range developments, including a corral, a well, troughs and other infrastructure, which Western Watersheds Project claims would provide water sources and increased perches for ravens and raptors that prey on sage-grouse chicks and eggs.
“The BLM is building new infrastructure that is likely to increase ravens in the project area, yet at the same time, Idaho Fish and Game has proposed to kill nearly 1,000 ravens in this region using poisons,” said Travis Bruner, executive director of Western Watersheds Project. “The agencies should address the cause of declining sage-grouse populations, which is livestock grazing in sage-grouse habitat, and habitat fragmentation.”