Greens Seek Help for Idaho’s Big Lost River

BOISE (CN) – Despite 10 years of appeals backed by research, the U.S. Forest Service refuses to protect streams and fish habitat threatened by livestock grazing in Idaho’s Big Lost River watershed, environmentalists claim in court.
     The Western Watersheds Project sued the Forest Service on Monday, saying its 2015 grazing allotments threaten sensitive fish habitat in the Copper Basin area of the Big Lost River watershed, in Salmon-Challis National Forest.
     The forest is east of Ketchum and Sun Valley, just over Trail Creek Summit. The area’s wildlife, fly fishing, backpacking and camping sites have attracted outdoor enthusiasts for decades, including Ernest Hemingway and countless Hollywood celebrities drawn to the small hamlet of Sun Valley for its world-class skiing.
     The area is part of an historic Basque sheep herding range, which in recent decades has been converted to private cattle grazing.
     Idaho’s Basque population immigrated from Spain during the 19th century. The Big Lost River watershed is part of the people’s traditional sheep grazing range, which extends to high-desert prairies to the southwest, about 40 miles from Boise.
     The Basque sheepherder tradition has faded out over the decades, but still lingers.
     Beef is now the main stock industry in the area, and the Forest Service annually approves cattle grazing on public land. But the grazing threatens species of native fish, including a “unique form of mountain whitefish,” according to the complaint.
     The Forest Service’s 2015 Annual Operating Instructions approve grazing for the Antelope, Boone Creek, Copper Basin and Wildhorse allotments.
     “We have been monitoring and measuring the impacts of the grazing to make sure we are familiar with what’s going on out there,” Western Watersheds Executive Director Travis Bruner told Courthouse News. “We’ve spent a lot of time sending letters, giving them data and doing everything short of taking this to court.”
     Western Watersheds says 10 years of this is long enough, that they have exhausted all other avenues, so it’s time to take things to the next level.
     “Every year, the impact continues on streams and stream banks,” he said. “They (stock owners) can’t even keep the animals in the areas they are supposed to stay during specific times of the year. They are supposed to graze them at different locations to provide some amount of impact distribution, but we have volunteers who monitor where they are at, and there is no enforcement. We have seen no action from the agency.”
     Bruner said the government loses on money on the deal because it awards subsidized pricing for permits.
     Grazing permits, which are administered by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, are based on price per Animal Unit Month (AUM). An animal unit consists of a cow and calf, or five sheep. The price per AUM is calculated by multiplying the number of animal units by the number of months of grazing.
     The Forest Service announced in January that it raised its 2015 grazing fee to $1.69 per AUM, up from $1.34 in 2014. The increase, according to Bruner, is significantly less that what the government could be collecting.
     “That’s 10 percent below fair market value,” he said. “On private land, the price would be 10 times that and it’s more on state land as well, but the federal government is still charging 10 percent less. The agency loses millions of dollars per year employing people to issue permits authorizing grazing, and if they would just stop the grazing they wouldn’t have to spend any of that. It just doesn’t make any economic or environmental sense.”
     (The government sometimes cannot collect grazing fees at all, as shown by its standoff with a right-wing militia last year in Nevada who “protected” rancher Cliven Bundy, who refuses to pay more than $1 million in grazing fees because he does not recognize the federal government.)
     Western Watersheds says in its complaint that native populations of fish are “already imperiled by agricultural diversions (irrigation) and competition from non-native fish” and that stock “harm fish habitat by trampling stream banks, widening stream channels and wading in streams, among other activities.”
     The organization did not say whether cattle urinating in streams could hurt fish, though it can hurt humans by spreading Giardia. The microscopic parasite found in rural and wilderness water sources can cause severe medical complications, sometimes called “Beaver Fever.” It’s a big reason why backpackers and campers use water purifiers before drinking water from wildland streams.
     “Grazing also decreases streamside vegetation and raises water temperature,” the complaint states.
     Western Watersheds claims the Forest Service’s 2015 grazing allotments under its Annual Operating Instructions violate its own directive to protect fish under its INFISH aquatic conservation strategy.
     “INFISH sets quantifiable riparian conservation goals toward which the Forest Service must progress,” the complaint states. “Not only has the Forest Service failed to consider the impact of its grazing program on these riparian goals and whether the authorized grazing complies with INFISH, but the Forest Service’s own data shows that riparian habitat conditions are deteriorating on all four Copper Basin Allotments.”
     The Forest Service could not be reached for comment after business hours Tuesday.
     Western Watersheds asks the court to set aside the agency’s 2015 Annual Operating Instructions and enjoin further grazing on the allotments.
     It is represented by house attorney Kristin Ruether in Boise.

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