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Greens Demand Info|on Sage Grouse Habitat

BOISE (CN) - Environmentalists sued the Bureau of Land Management for information about the effect cattle grazing in Idaho and Nevada have on the greater sage grouse.

Western Watersheds Project claims the BLM and Department of the Interior are way past their deadlines to respond to freedom of information requests about two livestock grazing allotments.

The FOIA requests concern the Garat grazing allotment in the Owyhee Canyonlands of southwest Idaho and the Argenta allotment in northern Nevada. Both allotments provide habitat for important populations of sage grouse.

"Western Watersheds Project ... requested the documents to further its objective of informing the public about ways in which BLM-authorized livestock grazing affects wildlife resources on BLM public lands, in particular the greater sage-grouse," the group says in its March 29 complaint.

Western Watersheds senior staff attorney Kristin Reuther said grazing has a tremendous effect on sage grouse.

"There are a lot of effects; I don't know where to start, but for example, when cows eat grass, they eat the tall grass that sage grouse use to hide," she told Courthouse News on Friday.

Reuther said that when cattle trample the soil they spread cheatgrass, an invasive species that chokes native sagebrush ecosystems that are critical sage grouse habitat. Cheatgrass also provides fuel for wildfires, which destroys protective cover.

Grazing's effect on habitat loss and spread of cheatgrass was described in a 2013 article in the Journal of Applied Ecology.

Western Watersheds says grazing allotments can include fencing and other barriers that affect sage grouse, and the Bureau is stonewalling its request for information.

"There are some issues with transparency; sometimes we have slow responses on FOIA requests," Reuther said. "These [requests at issue] have been pending for five or six months, which is a lot slower than is reasonably expected. We don't know of any specific agenda causing them to withhold documents on these FOIA requests. However, BLM in general does have an agenda of supporting public lands ranching despite its severe environmental harms, and that's an agenda we are deeply concerned with."

Western Watersheds request information on the 210,000-acre Garat allotment on Oct. 21, 2015, and has received no response, though the BLM's response period is 20 days. Nor has the BLM responded to a Jan. 11, 2016 appeal for its failure to "provide any determination or final response."

Western Watersheds had only slightly better results for its Sept. 18, 2015 request for information about the 140,000-acre Argenta allotment in Nevada. The BLM provided a few CDs containing limited information. But the group says the BLM has provided only about 25 percent of the documents available for the Argenta allotment.

"Over five months, or approximately 100 working days, have passed since receipt of Garat request; and over six months, or approximately 120 working days, have passed since receipt of Argenta request," the complaint states. "None of the correspondence from BLM with respect to either FOIA request has specifically claimed that 'unusual circumstances' exist; and even if they did, BLM's delays have extended far beyond the 10 additional days allowed in such cases.

"BLM's failure to provide a full and adequate response to WWP's FOIA requests frustrates WWP's pursuit of its objective to educate its members, the public and decision makers as to the environmental effects of federal government programs and activities."

Western Watersheds wants to see the records.

Reuther is a staff attorney for the Western Watersheds Projects in Boise.

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