Thursday, September 28, 2023
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Cattlemen Fight Feds Over 16 Million Acres

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (CN) - Wyoming cattlemen sued the United States on Wednesday, claiming its plans to protect 16 million acres of sage grouse habitat ignore adverse affects on grazing.

The Wyoming Stock Growers Association sued the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service, both of them branches of the Department of Agriculture, for issuing final agency decisions that designate thousands of acres as protected sage grouse habitat.

The cattle industry is powerful in Wyoming. Beef cattle alone contributed $706 million to the state in 2013, and income from all livestock came to $833 million, according to the Wyoming Farm Bureau. Income from all agriculture that year was $1.35 billion.

More than 42 percent of Wyoming's 97,914 square miles are federal lands. With 640 acres per square mile, the 16 million acres involved in the lawsuit amounts to 25.5 percent of Wyoming's federal lands.

"The BLM and Forest Service worked together to go ahead and amend respective land use plans to address the greater sage grouse, and we are challenging those amendments and the management standards and guidelines, and how that affects the livestock industry, specifically the grazing on Forest Service land and land managed by the BLM," plaintiff's attorney Maegan Woita, of the Mountain States Legal Foundation in Lakewood, Colo., told Courthouse News on Thursday.

The amendments affect large tracts of land throughout Wyoming's Rocky Mountain region and many other areas.

The stock growers say the BLM's record of decision for the Rocky Mountain Region, the approved resource management plan amendment for Wyoming, and the Wyoming Greater Sage-Grouse Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) are "contrary to the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, the National Environmental Policy Act ... and other laws."

They want the court to review the Forest Service's record of decision, the Land Management Plan Amendment for Thunder Basin National Grassland, Bridger-Teton National Forest and Medicine Bow National Forest, and the WY Greater Sage-Grouse FEIS.

Specifically, the stock growers want the court to declare the agency actions "(a) arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion or otherwise not in accordance with law; (b) contrary to constitutional right, power, privilege or immunity; (c) in excess of statutory jurisdiction, authority or limitation, or short of statutory right; and/or (d) without observance of procedure required by law."

The cattlemen also say the agencies violated the Administrative Procedures Act, and failed to give their interests proper consideration.

"These amendments are called the 'Greater Sage-Grouse' amendments, so they are catering to the Greater Sage-Grouse," Woita said. "As the suit goes on, there will be multiple issues that will be brought up, but I don't want to speak on those at this point."

Wyoming Stock Growers executive vice president Jim MaGagna said the 16 million acres set aside as protected habitat are critical to the cattle industry and that prohibiting grazing there violates state and federal law.

"Our litigation is specific to the BLM/USF's plans collectively known as the '9-plan.' This collectively represents approximately 16 million acres of sage grouse habitat, nearly all of which is grazed by livestock," MaGagna told Courthouse News Thursday night.

"While we will be raising very specific concerns once we have reviewed the agencies' administrative records, our concerns generally relate to the agencies' failure to fully accept and be guided by the provisions contained in the Wyoming governor's executive order on sage grouse."

MaGagna said that grazing, if properly monitored, can be beneficial to grouse.

"The EO [executive order] recognizes that proper livestock is not a threat to sage grouse and in fact can provide a benefit to good habitat," MaGagna said. "It further provides that where improper grazing is identified through monitoring, the state and federal land agencies will work collaboratively to make appropriate adjustments. The USFWS has earlier recognized the EO, including these provisions, as an adequate regulatory mechanism to protect sage grouse in Wyoming. The recently finalized plans, particularly the FS plans, fail to fully recognize this and provide for significant further regulation of grazing."

Woita said the new amendments already have taken effect.

The Wyoming Stock Growers want enforcement of the amendments enjoined.

(Editor's note: Due to a reporting error, an early versions of this story incorrectly reported that attorney Woita said she did not know when the amendments would take effect. They already have taken effect.)

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