- Associated Press - Sunday, October 12, 2014

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - A small portion of a federal judge’s ruling in Idaho against the U.S. Bureau of Land Management concerning grazing permits in sage grouse habitat is being eyed as a potential lever by environmental groups considering similar lawsuits in other states.

Most of U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill’s 21-page decision late last month involved his ruling that the agency violated environmental laws in issuing permits on four grazing allotments in south-central Idaho, considered test cases for about 600 other permits.

But he used three pages near the end of his decision to rule on a separate matter that the agency incorrectly used a congressional budget rider to issue additional grazing permits in south-central Idaho with no environmental analysis at all.

“This is a clear shot across the bow of the BLM,” said Todd Tucci, an attorney for Advocates for the West that represented Western Watersheds Project in the lawsuit. “I will bring this argument to any federal court in the country and feel very comfortable about my likelihood of success.”

Ken Cole of Western Watersheds Project said the BLM has used the rider to issue hundreds of grazing permits across the West. Winmill’s decision only pertains to Idaho, but conservation groups in other states are viewing the winning lawsuit as a possible template.

“This is a legal victory that is certainly going to get a lot of scrutiny from environmental groups moving forward,” said Erik Molvar of WildEarth Guardians.

Idaho BLM spokeswoman Jessica Gardetto said the agency would do the environmental assessments on the four allotments as instructed by Winmill. But attorneys with the BLM said that because the ruling didn’t address the other 600 permits, there was no final judgment.

The BLM attorneys, in a statement sent to The Associated Press by Gardetto, said, “What this means, for practical purposes, is that Judge Winmill’s latest order is not immediately appealable, and there is currently no time frame for BLM to appeal.”

On the other part of the ruling, Gardetto said the agency is analyzing how it will affect the BLM’s grazing permit renewal process.

“The reason Congress did the grazing rider is because BLM had a backlog of grazing permits,” Gardetto said. “There are so many and not enough BLM employees to process them all.”

She said the BLM in Idaho manages about 2,200 grazing allotments and about 1,400 grazing permits.

Lawmakers in 2003 through a congressional budget rider gave the BLM permission to approve grazing permit requests without conducting a National Environmental Policy Act review when the agency lacked sufficient resources.

In 2008, the federal court rejected the BLM’s argument that the rider allowed the agency to renew grazing permits without adhering to the Federal Land Policy and Management Act.

In the most recent case, the BLM argued the rider allowed permits to be renewed while delaying environmental reviews to a later date.

Winmill ruled that reasoning applies to the National Environmental Policy Act, but not the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, which he said must be completed before renewals.

The congressional budget rider “carves out an exception for FLPMA and requires a continuing obligation to follow that statute,” Winmill wrote.

Winmill noted that the BLM’s Burley Field Office since 2005 has used the grazing rider to renew grazing permits in 168 of 200 allotments with no NEPA or FLPMA review.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is under court order to make a decision by September 2015 on whether sage grouse should be protected under the Endangered Species Act. Such a listing could cause ramifications for ranchers and others by limiting the use of public lands.

Sage grouse are chicken-sized birds that live in sagebrush and grasslands. They are known for gathering in spring in breeding grounds called leks, where the males puff themselves out and dance for females searching for mates.

Their numbers have declined in the last century with the loss of sagebrush habitat.

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