Judge tosses protest of grazing plan that threatens 72 grizzlies

WYOMING -- The renewal of 10-year grazing permits that threaten 72 grizzly bears along the Upper Green River was “supported by substantial evidence” a judge ruled in dismissing a suit challenging the historic Green River Drift.

U.S. District Judge Nancy Freudenthal decided May 16 that officials with the Bridger-Teton National Forest and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service followed federal environmental laws when approving the grazing plan for 8,772 cow-calf pairs and yearlings and 47 horses. 

Grazing on 170,643 acres at the upper end of the Green River Drift trail is unlikely to jeopardize Yellowstone Ecosystem grizzlies or the Kendall Warm Springs dace — species protected by the federal Endangered Species Act — the judge ruled.

Federal and state wildlife managers removed 35 grizzlies from the grazing allotments from 2010 to 2018 for depredating on cattle but that pace could be accelerated “in light of increased conflicts due to a growing grizzly population within the project area,” the judge’s order states. Even though grizzlies are still protected by the ESA, their comeback from the brink of extirpation has met recovery criteria since 2004, the decision states.

Because of ecosystem-wide monitoring, management and limits on bear killings, the judge agreed with federal scientists that “the level of projected mortality caused by the project will not appreciably reduce the population, distribution, or reproduction of GYE grizzlies.”

Likewise, the cattle grazing at the north end of the Wind River Range in Sublette County likely won’t affect the continued existence of the dace, a species of small fish found only in 328 yards of the Kendall Warm Springs and its outflow to the Green River. Freudenthal agreed with scientists who said that driving cattle across the spring and its channel “could actually result in beneficial effects to the dace.”

The Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, Western Watersheds Project, Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Yellowstone to Uintas Connection sued federal officials for their 2019 decision allowing the seasonal grazing to continue under various conditions. Wyoming, the Upper Green River Cattle Association, Sommers Ranch, Price Cattle Ranch, Murdock Land and Livestock Co. and the Wyoming Stock Growers Association joined the federal side to protect their interests.

The conservationists claimed that federal managers’ decision regarding grizzlies was arbitrary and capricious and they sought to prevent “lethal removal” of grizzlies from the area, especially valuable females. They also wanted to stop the cattle drive across the warm spring and its outflow pending further consultation with the Fish and Wildlife Service.

The suit contended that the Bridger-Teton would allow grazing to trammel forage that provides cover for sensitive amphibians and birds — contrary to the national forest’s own standards. Also, conservation measures contemplated in the grazing plan fell short, the suit said.

But federal managers considered those elements and appropriately backed up their decisions, Freudenthal decided. Ecosystem-wide sideboards for grizzlies ensure that the grazing “will not appreciably reduce the population, distribution, or reproduction of GYE grizzlies,” Freudenthal wrote, quoting federal scientists.

The outflow at Kendall Warm Springs appears to be deepening and channeling, to the detriment of the dace, federal officials said. Cattle plodding there could reverse that trend. Their hoofprints could “act to counteract the stream’s recent trend of narrowing and deepening,” the grazing approval said.

Freudenthal also decided that conservation measures governing the grazing are adequate, even though some “are clearly aspirational.” Further, objectives in the Bridger-Teton’s management plan apply forest-wide with the understanding that “some sites within the BTNF will more fully accomplish some objectives at the expense of others.”

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