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Feds forced to review grazing on biodiverse Sonoran Desert National Monument

A federal judge found that the Bureau of Land Management violated the National Environmental Protection Act in authorizing 21% more livestock grazing than previously allowed on the monument.

PHOENIX (CN) — The federal government failed to take a "hard look” at the environmental impact of grazing on the Sonoran Desert National Monument and was ordered by a federal judge to rewrite its resource management plan. 

The decision, issued by U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton more than two months after hearing competing motions for summary judgment, stems from arguments brought by the Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit environmental group based in Idaho that sued the Bureau of Land Management in 2021 over cattle grazing in the most biodiverse desert in North America. 

“This is the second time a judge has determined that the Bureau of Land Management relied on faulty information to justify livestock grazing on hot desert landscapes within the monument,” Western Watersheds wrote in a Thursday press release

Bolton found the bureau’s management plan in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act, ordering the agency to go back to the drawing board in an order this week.

Then-President Bill Clinton designated the nearly 500,000-acre plot of land south of the Gila River as a national monument in January 2001. The half of the monument south of the I-8 highway was left closed to livestock grazing, while the northern half remained open so long as the BLM determines grazing isn’t harming the nearly 600 species, many of them endangered, that inhabit the desert. 

Western Watersheds challenged the bureau’s 2012 resource management plan, which allowed grazing in roughly two-thirds of the northern half of the monument. In 2016, a federal judge agreed that the bureau's analysis didn’t properly consider grazing’s effect on the environment and ordered it to amend the plan. 

The bureau did so in 2020, this time allowing 21% more grazing on all the land in the monument’s northern half.

Western Watersheds attorney Lauren Rule told Bolton in a June hearing that the group would ultimately like to see grazing banned everywhere on the monument but would settle for “an honest analysis.” The analysis the bureau used relies on flawed assumptions, Rule said. 

The bureau reasoned in its 2020 decision that because livestock never stray further than two miles from a water source, any land on the monument further than that from water can be assumed to be safe from grazing degradation. 

“We say that’s a flawed assumption,” Rule told Bolton in June. 

Bolton agreed.

“All parties agree that grazing impacts are most severe near water sources, but BLM provides no true substantiation or independent reasoning to justify its serial use of the two-mile benchmark,” she wrote.

She added that some evidence on the record even goes against that assumption, and the bureau failed to properly consider that evidence. 

The bureau also lowered the standard for determining whether plants are affected by grazing, Bolton wrote, again violating the National Environmental Policy Act. 

“Once again, a court ruled that the bureau can’t just massage the data in order to support their foregone conclusions to allow livestock grazing on this fragile desert monument,” said Sandy Bahr, director of Arizona’s Grand Canyon chapter of the Sierra Club, a co-plaintiff in the suit. “The agency’s determinations were based on flawed assumptions about the impacts of livestock use despite mountains of evidence showing that, in fact, grazing does impact many of the Monument’s protected plants, animals and cultural resources.” 

Bolton remanded the resource management plan back to the bureau to be resubmitted, siding with plaintiffs on the issue of the National Environmental Policy Act, but she ruled against plaintiffs on other claims. 

Western Watersheds argued that the bureau’s resource management plan violates the Federal Land Management Policy Act of 1976 because it didn’t ensure protection for all species identified in the proclamation of the monument. The bureau countered that because the plan is only tentative and it will make more specific decisions when actually implementing grazing, plaintiffs don’t have standing. 

Bolton agreed.

“Plaintiffs argue that BLM’s decision to ‘punt grazing management to future allotment-level decisions’ will obscure larger-scale impacts of grazing across allotments, but the record does not reflect that BLM would make implementation-level decisions without considering each decision’s impact on the monument as a whole,” she wrote in her order. 

She also wrote that the court mustn’t interfere with future administrative action, meaning the bureau’s implementation-level decision making.

Bolton ruled against plaintiffs’ National Historic Preservation Act claim as well, finding adequacy in the bureau’s analysis of effects on cultural and historic sites on the monument.

Because of the flaws in the bureau’s environmental assessment, Bolton declined to decide whether it should have prepared an environmental impact statement, the need for which is determined in the content of the environmental assessment.

Attorneys for the bureau haven't replied to a request for comment.

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Categories / Environment, Government, Regional

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