Monday, September 25, 2023
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No Legal Fees in Fight Over Burned Idaho Land

(CN) - An environmental group cannot collect attorneys' fees in a sprawling dispute over Idaho wildlife habitat and grazing lands destroyed by a fire, the 9th Circuit ruled Tuesday.

Back in 2004, Western Watershed Projects convinced U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill that the Bureau of Land Management had violated federal law by renewing grazing permits in Southern Idaho's 1.7 million-acre Jarbidge Resource Area.

The group said such plans failed to properly protect the habitat of the pygmy rabbit and sage grouse, but it reached a settlement that should have ended the case, attorneys' fees and all, in 2006.

While the settlement agreement was still pending in 2007, the Murphy Complex Fire swept through the area and burned more than 400,000 acres, much of it the disputed rangeland and habitat.

Western Watershed intervened afterward when the bureau began issuing grazing permits for some of the unburned land.

Judge Winmill ultimately agreed that the agency was still neglecting the pygmy rabbit and sage grouse, but refused to grant a formal injunction after finding that it would act in good faith to reduce grazing on the unburned lands.

Western Watershed then sought for attorneys' fees as the prevailing party in the post-fire litigation, but the District Court in Boise rejected the motion. The 9th Circuit sid that the group argued on appeal that the lower court had "considered only the reasonableness of the underlying agency decision to issue grazing authorizations after the fire, and did not adequately consider the reasonableness of the litigation strategy defending that decision."

A three-judge panel in Seattle affirmed Tuesday, finding that the group had not exactly prevailed because the post-fire permits were issued in haste after a huge disaster and did amount to a rejection of the court's previous ruling.

"The District Court agreed with WWP that the BLM had made the same error in interpretation, but said BLM was not 'blatant[ly] disregard[ing] [ ] the [c]ourt's prior decision,'" Judge Mary Schroeder wrote for the panel. "Rather it was 'scrambling to salvage something from a disaster.' The record supports this evaluation. There was no abuse of discretion in denying fees." (Brackets in original.)

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