A trio of environmental groups has filed suit in federal court this month against the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), stating the “excessive cattle grazing” in the Colville National Forest in Washington is causing long-term damage to the forest ecosystem.
The Lands Council, Western Watersheds Project and Kettle Range Conservation Group argue the USFS’ 2019 Colville National Forest Land Management Plan made no adjustments to the amount of grazing land allowed despite the department’s analysis showing only 26 percent of the area is suitable for grazing.
The trio additionally asserts USFS did not take a “hard look” at the impacts of overgrazing on “sensitive riparian areas, vulnerable wildlife populations and recreational uses” and did not consider any alternatives to grazing management.
“Ecosystems change every year and evolve due to drought, fire and manmade impacts such as timber harvest and livestock grazing, yet many of the grazing allotments in the Colville forest have not been evaluated in 50 years,” said Chris Bachman, wildlife program director at the Spokane, WA-based Lands Council. “We owe it to ourselves, future generations, and the wildlife that calls the forest home to ensure that the Forest Service is following the law in determining best management practices.”
The 1.1 million-acre Colville National Forest is located in the northeastern portion of Washington state and encompasses the Kettle River Range and the Selkirk Mountains. It is bordered to the west by the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, to the east by the Idaho Panhandle National Forests, and to the south by a portion of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation.
Before 2019, the last management plan was approved in 1988, and it had been 15 years of negotiations with all interests and public scoping meetings for USFS to draft its final environmental impact statement and record of final decision.
According to the USFS, the Colville National Forest supports about 29,500 animal unit months and contributes to about 98 local jobs and an estimated annual labor income of $1,524,000. Grazing occurs on approximately 787,000 acres with 58 grazing allotments; 42 are active and 16 are vacant. The Graves allotment is designated for sheep and comprises 60,201 acres and the rest of the allotments are for cattle.
In addition to cattle grazing, the forest has 750 mining claims and sold an average of 68 million board feet of lumber each year in the last five years. The forest also supports recreational opportunities and includes 500 miles of summer-use trails.
The trio of plaintiffs states that of all the grazing allotments, only four have undergone environmental review; 16 have not had their Adaptive Multi-Paddock updated, and 12 are on the schedule for National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review in the next eight years. They also claim that most grazing allotments are enclosed in the heavy forest canopy, which results in cattle amassing in areas with limited forage destroying riparian habitats and “the serious degradation of valued recreational resources.”
“We are proud of the job our ranch families do on the Colville National Forest (CNF). We enjoy and appreciate having federal lands in our area, and we want to ensure they stay healthy and available for public use,” Stevens County Cattlemen’s Association President Justin Hedrick said. “We believe the multi-purpose designation of the CNF is a benefit to our area and our ranch families help ensure that goal is met.”
In addition to the suit filed this month, another lawsuit was filed in June by the same trio of environmentalists regarding the USFS’ “ignorance” to reducing wildlife conflicts on grazing land.
“They have neglected their duty to address grazing conflicts and protect the forest’s newly recolonizing gray wolves, by refusing to adopt management directives that can reduce and avoid wolf-livestock conflicts,” the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit states the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) has killed 31 wolves since 2012, and 84 percent of the wolves have been lethally removed in response to depredations of Diamond M Ranch’s cows and calves.
While Diamond M Ranch is not named in the lawsuit, the trio asserts the ranch has not taken measures to stop the depredation and ensure the wolf species’ preservation. The groups claim by authorizing the grazing permits to Diamond M and not taking steps to prevent depredation, USFS is violating NEPA, the National Forest Management Act (NFMA) and the Administrative Procedure Act (APA).
Diamond M Ranch is located in the Kettle Range of Washington and Len McIrvin, the ranch’s owner, told Bloomberg Law in 2019 that his family has been the subject of death threats and some of his cattle were shot, leading to an investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Joint Terrorism Task Force.
McIrvin stated he does not want compensation for cattle lost as it does not cover the cattle’s cost and estimates they lost “70 head a year to wolves, which during the past 10 years amounts to well over a million dollars in loss,” he told Bloomberg Law.
“It is the responsibility of National Forest leadership to protect, restore, and maintain wildlife habitat, but it has abdicated its authority,” said Timothy Coleman, director of Kettle Range Conservation Group in a press release. “Whether you love wildlife, like to hunt and fish, or enjoy beautiful trails free of manure, putting one cattle corporation’s profits ahead of all other interests is a blatantly outrageous waste of our public land.”
Additionally, the trio disputes the 2019 Colville Forest Plan for “failing to evaluate the impacts of domestic livestock grazing to newly recolonizing gray wolves, for failing to consider a single management alternative that includes measures for reducing wolf-livestock conflicts on the Colville, and for failing to consider whether all 68 percent of the National Forest that is allocated for domestic livestock grazing remains suitable for this use in light of the recurring conflicts.”
The gray wolves were delisted as endangered in the eastern portion of Washington and Oregon state in 2011. The wolves are listed as endangered in the western two-thirds of Washington. The wolves in the eastern portion are managed by the 2011 Wolf Conservation and Management Plan administered by the WDFW. Gov. Jay Inslee (D) has directed the WDFW this month to “institute practices that will avoid the repeated loss of wolves and livestock in our state.” The last wolf count by WDFW in 2019 found 108 known wolves in 21 known packs including at least 10 breeding pairs. The Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation reported 37 wolves in five packs.
Both suits seek for the USFS to stop issuing grazing permits until the 2019 Colville Forest Plan complies with NEPA, NFMA and the APA. They are also seeking “reasonable costs, litigation expenses, and attorneys’ fees associated with this litigation pursuant to the Equal Access to Justice Act.” — Charles Wallace, WLJ editor