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Craters of the Moooon

New BLM grazing decision falls flat, further dividing ranchers and environmentalists

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Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve is one of the most wacky and wonderful places in Idaho. Each year, more than 200,000 visitors explore its sci-fi moonscape of black lava fields, craters and spatter cones, but they often miss the huge herds of cows grazing on sagebrush flats nearby. Since 1931, Craters has been open for grazing, requiring state and national agencies to balance socioeconomic and environmental interests. For ranchers, the policy provides job security, while for environmentalists it raises concerns about water quality, geologic degradation and diminishing habitat for native species—particularly the once-endangered sage grouse.

The latest chapter in this long-running conflict ended Aug. 9, when the Bureau of Land Management announced final alterations to the amount of grazing in the park, a revision sparked by a 2008 lawsuit over sage grouse protections and violations of the National Environmental Policy and Federal Land Policy and Management acts. Some concessions were made for the sake of sage grouse, but the decision largely favored ranchers: The number of cows and sheep allowed in the park will fall by only 1 percent.

According to the BLM Record of Decision, 273,600 of the 275,100 BLM-managed acres—roughly one-third of the monument, which is otherwise managed by the National Park Service—will remain open to livestock, and cuts were due mainly to boundary restructuring rather than anti-cattle sentiment.

The ROD marks a small victory in what John Thompson, director of public relations for the Idaho Farm Bureau Federation office in Pocatello, described as an uphill battle against conservationists and recreators—two groups he blames for a significant drop in Idaho grazing land.

"The long-term trend, not just [at Craters] but all across the state, is that we're turning less animals out on public land all the time," said Thompson. "It's been significant loss. In 1976, there were 30,000 cattle on the range in [Custer] county, today there's about half that, and that's pretty typical of across the state."

Thompson worries the loss of grazing land, estimated by the BLM at 34 percent, could lead to a dwindling of knowledge about the food supply and put irreplaceable ranches out of business.

"A livestock operator goes out of business, and he either has to retire and sell, or go find a job in town doing something else," Thompson said. "The capital investment to start a farm or ranch is incredible; it's a huge amount of money, and you just don't see the startups," Thompson said.

There are two sides to the ROD coin, though. Conservation-focused nonprofit Western Watershed Project opposed the original BLM grazing plan in court and is far from happy with the new decision. WWP claims the revised sage grouse protections won't offset harm caused by livestock, that the BLM is still violating the law by refusing to treat conservation as the primary use of the preserve, and that Craters should be exempt from typical FLPMA rules.

On its website, WWP claims livestock grazing is an abuse of public lands, harming them through "reduced water quality, increased soil erosion, reduced plant diversity, exotic plant invasions, reduced wildlife habitat" and more.

"Our thought on the new plan is that it's very disappointing," said WWP Senior Staff Attorney Kristin Ruether. "BLM changed very little from the 2007 plan we had challenged—they didn't change anything substantive. Most importantly, they didn't reconsider the fundamental question of whether commercial livestock grazing is an appropriate use for our unique national monument ...We should be managing this unique monument for wildlife, not for cattle."

In response to Ruether's comment, BLM Planning and Environmental Coordinator Lisa Cresswell cited tradition.

"When the [Clinton-era] proclamation that expanded [Craters] to include all of this BLM land was signed, it specifically said that livestock grazing could continue," Cresswell said. "It's one of the traditional historic uses, and it's going to be allowed to remain."

Ruether was also frustrated that the ROD largely outlines intentions rather than specific goals. For example, it includes promises to "minimize" the impact of construction on native species, focus grazing on invasive plants "where possible," and continue to study the effects of livestock to "develop specific management objectives" that remain undefined. WWP views these as steps in the right direction, but Ruether worries the statements aren't strong enough to be binding.

"When something is vague, it becomes hard to enforce," she said. "So who knows if it will even get done."

Environmentalists did rack up one win: Grazing patterns will be subject to change March 15-June 15 to keep livestock away from grounds where sage grouse are breeding. The cultural integrity of the monument will also be better protected, as new livestock-related infrastructure will be located farther from lava edges and playas.

"We studied various alternatives, including ones that reduced grazing by three-quarters or one-half of current rates, or eliminated grazing altogether," BLM Twin Falls District Manager Michael Courtney stated in a news release. "We found that we could manage sagebrush landscapes just as effectively with small adjustments to grazing levels."

Still, Reuther doubts it will be possible to adequately protect sage grouse with 99 percent of livestock still grazing.

"They maintained the levels of grazing that were already there," she said. "It's not much of a compromise at all."

WWP has already filed a protest with the BLM detailing its ROD woes. In the document, WWP accuses the bureau of showing favoritism toward ranchers and tourists, claiming BLM "conformed with the letter, but not the spirit, of cooperating with the public" when it weighed the merit of comments collected during the scoping period.

"It seems that the only 'public' that sway the agency are special interest groups concerned with preserving their own access and recreation," WWP wrote, "and not conservation groups advocating for species' and ecosystem protection."

Thompson dismissed WWP concerns about both the BLM and the negative impact of livestock on sage grouse as "unfounded," claiming WWP cherry-picked facts to support its position with the intent of stirring up trouble. According to Thompson, grazing might actually help sage grouse.

"Livestock grazing is not a primary threat to sage grouse habitat—fire and invasive species are," BLM Public Affairs Specialist Heather Tiel-Nelson said. She added that by disturbing grasses, grazers can actually help native sagebrush regain a foothold.

In turn, WWP points to scientific studies regarding the negative impact of grazing on sage grouse habitat and, on its website, states agency decisions are often the result of "political interference" by interest groups, and "BLM and Forest Service staff and conservationists continue to be subjected to psychological and physical intimidation in the field."

Both WWP and the IFBF claim to have science on their side, yet they are diametrically opposed.

"It's just a game, you know?" Thompson said. "In the end, all we're talking about is a few cows and sheep out there eating the grass."

For its part, BLM cited research it conducted following the 2008 WWP lawsuit as the basis for its ROD. Tiel-Nelson said her organization tries to balance all interests—including those of conservation groups like WWP.

"We are a multi-use agency," she said. "That's the beauty and the challenge of our mission. We manage for conservation of our precious resources as well as uses—everything from livestock grazing to oil and gas development."

For WWP, the management abilities of the BLM have fallen short once again. WWP wants the agency to revise its plan a final time in order to limit "the undue, unnecessary, irretrievable and irreversible, direct, indirect and cumulative" impacts of grazing—a request doomed to fail unless ongoing BLM studies convince the agency it's necessary. In the meantime, cows and sheep will continue to graze among the lava flows and sage grouse.

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