- Associated Press - Sunday, September 20, 2015

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - A new federal land management plan for southwest Idaho and northern Nevada created after the settlement of a lawsuit aimed at reducing cattle grazing has been released - and it allows an increase.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management last week approved its Resource Management Plan for the Jarbidge Field Office. The settlement agreement with conservationists was reached in 2005.

“This demonstrates that the BLM cannot be trusted to put the priority of wildlife and multiple use over cowboys,” said Todd Tucci, an attorney for Advocates for the West representing Western Watersheds Project. “Cowboys are running the show.”

The conservation group will consider another lawsuit, Tucci said. “We can’t let an increase in cattle go unchallenged,” he said.

The previous plan allowed up to 260,000 animal unit months, which increased to 326,000 under the new plan. The BLM defines an animal unit month as the amount of forage needed to sustain one cow and her calf, one horse, or five sheep or goats for a month.

In the 76-page plan, the BLM cited the 2005 federal lawsuit settlement agreement with Western Watersheds Project as one of the reasons for creating the new plan for the 1.4 million acres of public lands in the Jarbidge Field Office.

In the decade during the settlement agreement and the release of the new plan, the area has been hit by repeated giant rangeland wildfires - typically driven by invasive and fire-prone cheatgrass. Some areas have burned multiple times, adding up to more than a million acres burned over the years.

Heidi Whitlach, project manager for the Rangeland Management Plan, said the wildfires in the area and other parts of the state often pulled workers off the project and accounted for the length of time needed to complete the plan.

“We’ve had a lot of hurdles that came up,” Whitlach said. “It’s taken us quite a while to get this process completed, and we’re very happy that we finally have.”

Rehabilitation efforts in the burned areas, she said, resulted in the planting of grasses to prevent non-desirable invasive species, particularly cheatgrass, from returning. She said the initial years of the new Range Management Plan call for increased grazing and more cattle because of the additional forage with the planted grasses.

“We’ve tried hard to have different treatments that will allow the land to better recover after some of these wildfires that we’ve had,” she said. “So we’ve tried to build into it resiliency.”

Over the years, she said, the number of animal unit months will be reduced to 279,000 as more native plants and shrubs return.

Western Watersheds Project has a history of fighting against the planting of non-native seeds after a wildfire. The group contends that it can lead to turning sagebrush steppe needed by wildlife, such as sage grouse, into pastureland for cattle.

“We know where this ends,” said Tucci. “It ends in the extirpation of wildlife.”

The BLM plan also calls for sterilizing a herd of about 200 wild horses in the area, which was blasted by the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign.

That group in a statement called it a “pest control” act for ranchers “who view mustangs as competition for cheap, taxpayer subsidized grazing on public lands.”

The Idaho Cattle Association didn’t return a call from The Associated Press on Friday.

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