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Environmentalists hope to revive 15-year-old grazing lawsuit

A decision favorable to ranchers in a 15-year-old lawsuit over grazing effects on bull trout is being challenged before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

By Mateusz Perkowski

EO Media Group

Published on June 29, 2018 1:23PM

Bull trout are at the center of a 15-year-old lawsuit over grazing in the Malheur National Forest.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Bull trout are at the center of a 15-year-old lawsuit over grazing in the Malheur National Forest.

Environmentalists hope to resurrect a 15-year-old lawsuit over grazing impacts on bull trout in Oregon’s Malheur National Forest by appealing a ruling that favored ranchers.

In April, U.S. District Judge Michael Mosman dismissed a complaint initially filed in 2003 by the Oregon Natural Desert Association and the Center for Biological Diversity, which claimed cattle harm the threatened fish species by trampling egg nests and raising water temperatures.

The two environmental groups are now challenging that decision before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which takes about 15 months to resolve such cases on average.

At this point, the plaintiffs have simply filed a notice of appeal, which doesn’t lay out the arguments for why they believe the judge’s opinion was wrong, said Elizabeth Howard, an attorney for ranchers who intervened in the case.

“It’s hard to know what ONDA’s plans are right now,” Howard said, noting that substantive arguments will be made in the plaintiffs’ opening brief.

EO Media Group was unable to reach Mac Lacy, the attorney for the environmental groups, for comment.

“We seek to ensure that the Forest Service collects and appropriately responds to habitat data and makes every possible effort to protect bull trout habitat so this fish isn’t wiped out from these two rivers,” said Dan Morse, ONDA’s conservation director, in an email.

The environmental plaintiffs had argued that only 100 bull trout remain in the Malheur and North Fork Malheur rivers, which should each support 2,000 of the fish.

The U.S. Forest Service authorized grazing on seven allotments spanning thousands of acres even though its own data showed that “riparian management objectives” along the two rivers weren’t being attained, the plaintiffs argued.

By ignoring information showing continued degradation of bull trout habitat, such as bank stability and water temperature, the agency violated the National Forest Management Act, according to plaintiffs.

The Forest Service countered that the groups were “cherry-picking” problematic “hot spots” even as broader conditions across the landscape were improving.

Mosman and U.S. Magistrate Judge Paul Papak, who oversaw aspects of the case, agreed with the government that bull trout habit could be monitored on the “watershed,” rather than “stream by stream,” and that the plaintiffs hadn’t proven grazing had caused the species’ decline.


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