FRESNO (CN) – A federal judge extended a dispute over cattle grazing in Central California on Wednesday, allowing clean-water and forest-mismanagement claims to stand against federal regulators.
U.S. District Judge Lawrence O’Neill largely denied a motion by the U.S. Forest Service and livestock trade associations to dismiss a 2017 environmental action filed by a pair of California environmental groups.
The activists claim that the forest service is violating clean-water laws by allowing cattle to trample meadows and pollute streams in the Sierra Nevada. The plaintiffs have collected stream samples since 2000, showing high amounts of fecal matter in water near permitted grazing operations.
In a 50-page ruling, O’Neill said the plaintiffs adequately pleaded a link between the forest service’s granted grazing permits and the resulting damage to nearby snowmelt-fed mountain streams. He said it’s possible the federal government may need to obtain discharge permits in order to comply with state water quality laws.
“Plaintiffs’ challenge is narrowly targeted to discrete final forest service actions: the issuance of permits and [instructions] concerning the grazing program on the forest allotments, which have allegedly resulted in violations of California water regulations,” the ruling states.
O’Neill partly ruled in favor of the defendants, dismissing Endangered Species and Rescissions Act claims. He gave the plaintiffs 45 days to file an amended complaint.
Public lands ranching is a spark plug topic nationwide for environmentalists and a popular practice for farmers.
According to the Bureau of Land Management, approximately 229 million acres of public lands are used for livestock grazing, primarily cattle. The vast majority of permitted grazing occurs in 11 western states, including California, Colorado and Utah. In 2013, the forest service issued over 5,000 permits to graze in national forests.
Environmentalists and many scientists consider grazing a major threat to biodiversity on the western landscape. They argue that the millions of cattle and sheep cause stream pollution, destroy native vegetation and trample critical habitat for endangered species.
At issue in the Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center and Sierra Forest Legacy’s lawsuit is grazing on 52,000 acres of land ranging in elevation from 5,700 to 9,900 feet in the Stanislaus National Forest.
The forest service and a series of intervening ranchers and organizations including the California Farm Bureau Federation and California Cattlemen’s Association, argued that the plaintiffs’ second amended complaint failed to state a claim and that the federal court lacked jurisdiction. The forest service said it merely issued the permits and that discharge permits aren’t necessary under California’s Porter-Cologne Act.
The forest service did not immediately respond to a request for comment on O’Neill’s ruling.