Lawsuit is launched against grazing in Montana

  A legal attack against public-lands ranching is under way in Montana.


The National Wildlife Federation and its Montana affiliate filed suit March 30 against the Forest Service, Beaverhead National Forest Supervisor Bert Kulesza and Forest Service Chief Jack Ward Thomas in federal District Court in Butte, Mont.


Tom France, National Wildlife Federation attorney in Missoula, Mont., says the agency has repeatedly violated the National Environmental Policy Act by issuing grazing permits without assessing their impact on riparian areas. The agency also violated the National Forest Management Act when it failed to enforce streamside vegetation standards set in a 1986 10-year forest plan, France says.


He maintains the Beaverhead's assessment of individual allotments is "painfully slow." "You and I will both be dead before many of these allotments are dealt with in a serious way," France told the Butte Montana Standard.


The suit asks for a permanent injunction on 156 of the forest's 166 grazing allotments until the Forest Service reforms its grazing program. The case, however, may not be decided in court.


Forest Service attorneys, while defending the agency's "outstanding job" of improving range conditions, recently asked the environmentalists to negotiate. Tony Jewett, executive director of the Montana Wildlife Federation, says a settlement is possible.


Pete Frost, National Wildlife Federation attorney in Portland, Ore., says his group is after an agreement that emphasizes range reform on a national level. "The Beaverhead is just one of 15 suits we could have filed," says Frost. At least one other conservation group has turned to litigation to stop grazing violations. In California, the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund recently sued the Sierra National Forest, charging it issued grazing permits illegally for 24 years.


The largest of Montana's national forests, the Beaverhead is no stranger to grazing disputes. In 1989, the Sheridan Ranger District began updating an allotment management plan for the 43,000-acre Upper Ruby Cattle and Horse Allotment. After two years of analysis, and under pressure from the National Wildlife Federation, the district recommended a controversial 44 percent cut in cattle numbers to protect creeks and streams (HCN, 4/8/91). Four years and $200,000 later, the agency completed its environmental impact statement, which ultimately reduced cattle grazing by 25 percent.


Gary Giem, one of seven permittees who ranch the nearby Warm Springs Allotment, says "the time and money that were spent on the Upper Ruby could have gone a long ways in getting others done." But Giem admits that the Upper Ruby - one of 10 allotments not included in the lawsuit - -has made ranchers more aware of what is expected of them." That is why ranchers feel betrayed by the new lawsuit, Giem says.


"We've adopted most of the standards they have on the Upper Ruby. We got together and hired an outside person to do an inventory of the range in order to get a head start on our allotment management plan. There are people here in this valley that could be put out of business if this injunction went through," Giem says.


Ranchers voted April 9 to intervene in the lawsuit in order to secure a seat at the negotiating table if a settlement occurs. The Montana Public Lands Council will represent them.


The lawsuit also reverberated through sportsmen's groups, which have worked hard to establish strong hunter-rancher relationships. Recently, the Skyline Sportsmen dropped its affiliation with the Montana Wildlife Federation fearing that ranchers will deny them access to private lands for hunting.


Wildlife Federation attorney Frost doesn't think that is likely, and he says charges that his group wants to permanently kick cows out of southwestern Montana are false.


"We're not a cows-off-public-lands group," Frost says. "We recognize that there are appropriate places on the Beaverhead for livestock to graze. The problem is that the Forest Service has not analyzed where those places are, and it hasn't enforced its plan to ensure that grazing does not destroy riparian areas and resident trout."


Jack De Golia, public information officer for the Beaverhead, says the agency knows it's behind on assessing allotments and attributes the delay to budget cuts. "In 1992 we were funded at about 50 percent of the level the Forest Plan calls for," he says. Although the range budget rose 5 percent to $740,000 in 1993, Congress cut $100,000 from the 1994 budget.


Mark Petroni, Madison District Ranger, says despite budget cuts, two years ago the Wall Creek allotment received national recognition for range stewardship from a consortium of environmental groups. "And that allotment was included in the lawsuit," he says.


With two years remaining in the forest plan's 10-year cycle, Frost says, agency officials admit that more than 100 allotments still violate the plan's grazing regulations. "The agency just keeps on turning the cows out. We cannot wait forever to restore rivers and streams on the Beaverhead."


For more information contact the Montana Wildlife Federation, P.O. Box 6537, Bozeman, MT 59715 (406/587-1713); National Wildlife Federation, Northern Rockies Natural Resource Center, 240 N. Higgins, Missoula, MT 59802; or the USDA, Forest Service, Beaverhead National Forest, 420 Barrett St., Dillon, MT 59725 (406/683-3900).


* Carol Busch, HCN intern