The 20-year struggle over cattle grazing in southwest Idaho blew up on July 29. U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill in Boise ordered 14 ranches to remove all their cattle and sheep from 800,000 acres of federal land, stretching from southwest of Twin Falls to the Nevada line.
A lawsuit filed by Jon Marvel, the West’s leading proponent of kicking livestock off public lands, had triggered the judge’s ultimatum (HCN, 8/2/99: Jon Marvel vs. the Marlboro Man). But the real surprise was what happened next: On Aug. 30, Marvel announced he’d cut a deal with the four ranches that run most of the cattle in question.
If the judge OKs the deal, the ranches, part of the empire of Idaho billionaire J.R. Simplot, can keep their cattle on the land for at least a few more years, while a full environmental impact study is done. During that time, they would have to reduce their grazing by about 6 percent, and adjust cattle distribution to help protect wildlife habitat.
While Marvel and Simplot see benefits in their arrangement, one highly influential person does not: Idaho Sen. Larry Craig, R. He’s been the ranchers’ biggest backer in Congress, running roughshod over Marvel’s lawsuits several times. And the truce effectively bypasses him.
All in all, Marvel says, it’s an attempt "to alter the political dynamic."
The rangeland in question is an 800,000-acre patchwork of sagebrush, desert grass and canyons, part of the 1.7 million-acre Jarbidge Resource Area, overseen by the Bureau of Land Management. The area has seen massive weed invasions, and the BLM has planted 600,000 acres of non-native crested wheatgrass, which provides forage for cattle but is not much use for wildlife. Sage grouse have declined 85 percent here in the last 20 to 50 years.
Marvel has filed a series of lawsuits charging that the BLM’s assessments of grazing impacts are inadequate. He racked up a couple of wins in 2003 and 2004, when both the BLM and Judge Winmill said more analysis was needed before renewing ranchers’ grazing permits. But each time, Sen. Craig had the final say: He attached amendments to appropriations bills allowing the agency to continue granting the permits.
In his July ruling, the judge said the BLM runs grazing "like a horse with blinders on." The agency’s own studies show that overgrazing has harmed habitat and stream quality, he found. He ordered the livestock to be removed within several weeks, and not brought back until the BLM does a comprehensive environmental impact study.
Now, under the terms of the deal with Marvel, Simplot agrees not to ask Sen. Craig to come to the rescue again, and not to accept such assistance if Craig offers it. Simplot agreed to the deal because it’s better than removing the cattle for the estimated three years it would take to do the environmental impact study, and better than a prolonged court battle, says company spokesman Fred Zerza.
Once a full impact study is done, the BLM could impose tougher limits, but, "we have no fear of (that)," Zerza says. "We think (the study) is going to confirm that our present management is proper."
Marvel often criticizes the role of wealthy or corporate ranchers on public lands. And the J.R. Simplot Company is one of the biggest: Its global agribusiness empire includes ranches that run cattle on 2.3 million acres of federal land in four states. In the Jarbidge area, Simplot has about 9,000 cows on the BLM land in the winter, and 900 in the summer. But Marvel says the agreement with Simplot is a good move for many reasons. Not only does it sidestep Craig, he says, it also benefits sage grouse, other wildlife and sensitive plants.
BLM officials say they can’t comment on the deal until the court case plays out. Ten other ranches are affected by the judge’s order; they run a total of about 1,000 cattle and 5,800 sheep on the BLM land. Marvel made a similar agreement with the smallest operation, but the others are still deciding which way to jump.
That’s one of the best reasons to make the deal with Simplot, Marvel says: It provides leverage to force the other ranchers to fall into line. "It’s divide and conquer," he says.
Craig isn’t saying publicly whether he’ll try another end run in Congress on behalf of any ranchers that don’t make deals with Marvel. But a Craig spokesman, Mike Tracy, says, "Larry is always going to consider utilizing the legislative approach."
The author is HCN’s Northern Rockies editor.