Environmentalists have failed to convince the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that grazing authorizations unlawfully harmed bull trout on seven allotments in Oregon’s Malheur National Forest.
The appellate court has rejected allegations from the Oregon Natural Desert Association and Center for Biological Diversity that more than 100 federal grazing decisions — including permit approvals and operating instructions — violated the forest’s management plan over a decade.
Contrary to the plaintiffs’ claims, “the record amply demonstrates that the Forest Service is actively engaged in protecting bull trout habitats from the effects of livestock grazing by monitoring the effects of livestock grazing on various habitat indicators and implementing site-specific grazing limitations,” the 9th Circuit said.
In 2018, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit over grazing on the seven allotments that had originally been filed 13 years earlier, ruling that the plaintiffs hadn’t proven grazing caused threatened bull trout populations to plummet in the Malheur and North Fork Malheur rivers.
The plaintiffs argued that each river should be able to support about 2,000 bull trout but instead contain only 50 individuals, which means grazing must be restricted enough to allow for the populations to recover.
The 9th Circuit has now determined the judge correctly ruled in favor of the U.S. Forest Service and 16 ranchers who rely on the allotments and intervened in the lawsuit.
Under a federal strategy aimed at protecting the bull trout and other inland fish, the Forest Service must adjust or suspend grazing practices if “riparian management objectives” for stream health aren’t met.
As indicated by the Forest Service’s grazing curtailments, the agency “is not only monitoring, but also enforcing plan standards related to the protection of bull trout habitats,” the 9th Circuit said.
While the “continuing struggles of the bull trout” in the national forest are “undoubtedly troubling,” the 9th Circuit cannot act as a “panel of scientists” and must “defer to the Forest Service’s expertise” regarding grazing rules, according to the ruling.
Dams, irrigation, non-native species and other factors have also affected the species, so the court “cannot effectively mandate, as ONDA would have us do, that bull trout numbers increase,” the ruling said.
From a procedural perspective, the agency also isn’t required to “analyze and show” in a written document that every grazing decision conforms with the forest plan, the 9th Circuit said. “Because the Forest Service was not obligated by statute, regulation, or caselaw to memorialize each site-specific grazing authorization’s consistency with the forest plan, the absence of such a document is not in itself arbitrary and capricious.”