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Grazing Deal?

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Hope Marvel doesn't stab JR in the back. His history isn't so rosy on being trustworthy. Sometimes compromise isn't all it's cracked up to be.

Grazing Compromise: Environmentalists, Simplot strike deal in Jarbidge

By MICHELLE DUNLOP - Times-News writer
Wednesday, August 31, 2005 3:50 PM PDT

JARBIDGE - Strange bedfellows a court case has made.

When a local opponent of public lands grazing recently sued the federal government, few could have pictured an alliance with the West's most prominent rancher in the group's future.

Yet on Tuesday, that's just what happened with Western Watersheds Project and J.R. Simplot.

The two agreed to a settlement that not only brings a sensitive species to the forefront of the debate and raises questions about the role of politicians in the dispute, but also puts pressure on a federal agency's management practices.

"The largest public lands ranching operation in the United States has agreed to support science-based management of livestock grazing, including significantly reduced livestock grazing to protect sage grouse and other sensitive species ... " said Jon Marvel, executive director of Western Watersheds.

The agreement does not affect other permittees in the case, although Western Watersheds continues to negotiate with them.

Lawsuit targets grazing

Earlier this year, Western Watersheds Project filed a lawsuit against the Bureau of Land Management seeking to end grazing on 800,000 acres of public lands in the Jarbidge Resource Area. Simplot uses much of the land in question for his cattle operation.

Western Watersheds claimed that the BLM ignored its own management plan, broke federal policies and emphasized increased grazing at the detriment to sage grouse and other wildlife.

In July, District Court Judge B. Lynn Winmill agreed with much of Western Watersheds' allegations and temporarily put an end to grazing in the area. Simplot, other livestock permittees and the BLM filed motions opposing the judge's order. Recently, the parties settled on Sept. 9 as the earliest day that ranchers would be required to remove livestock from the Jarbidge.

Deal protects habitat

The new agreement, if approved by the judge, allows Simplot flexibility not available under the judge's order.

"We'll continue our operations at largely the same levels as in the past," said Fred Zerza, a spokesman for Simplot.

Zerza estimates that Simplot will reduce grazing by 5 to 10 percent under the settlement. Western Watersheds and Simplot selected decreases in grazing in some areas to protect sage grouse habitat. Sage grouse, a large, round-winged bird with a long, pointed tail, are still considered a sensitive species although the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declined to list it for protection under the Endangered Species Act earlier this year. And, Winmill specifically noted the species' decline in the Jarbidge in his decision.

In exchange for continued grazing, Simplot will not "pursue legislative remedies" that contradict the agreement with Western Watersheds. In fact, if a legislative "rider" or other legislation is passed that would allow Simplot to increase grazing levels, the livestock producer cannot take advantage of those offers under the settlement.

"These ranchers have been accustomed to getting that kind of legislative help," Marvel said. "(U.S. Sen.) Larry Craig has a history of issuing riders for the Jarbidge."

Mike Tracy, a spokesman for Craig, declined comment on the settlement.

Western Watersheds, in turn, will not pursue additional lawsuits against Simplot over the Jarbidge for a set time period.

BLM ponders implications

One final caveat of the agreement centers around the BLM and the development of a new environmental impact statement for grazing on the entire 1.7 million acres of the Jarbidge Resource Area - a move both groups will support. In his order, Winmill suggests that the agency conduct an EIS on only the 800,000 acres in question.

Marvel sees the agreement as a way for Western Watersheds and Simplot to collectively force the BLM into following policy, one now dictated partially by the two instead of the BLM.

"Isn't that ironic?" Marvel said.

Zerza views a new environmental impact statement as a way to validate Simplot's practices.

"We think it will confirm that our management of that range has been proper," Zerza said.

But what do officials at BLM think?

Agency officials could not comment. However, Deborah Ferguson, assistant U.S. attorney representing the BLM in the case, could.

"The BLM has this under consideration," she said. "Neither of them can determine what the agency will do."

While all parties wait to see the judge's next move, Zerza hopes that this agreement will lead to future compromises rather than additional litigation between groups like Western Watersheds and livestock permittees like Simplot.

"This does show a willingness by both parties to compromise," Zerza said. "It is encouraging."

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