A federal judge has ruled in favor of the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and a Washington sheep rancher after environmental groups filed a motion to enjoin domestic sheep grazing on several allotments in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest.
WildEarth Guardians and Western Watersheds Project filed the motion against USFS, with S. Martinez Livestock intervening in the case, to halt grazing this year, citing the transmission risk of Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae (Movi). The pathogen is carried by domestic sheep and can cause pneumonia and low lamb survival.
The environmental groups argued USFS was aware of the risk but continued to allow sheep grazing while a new environmental analysis was completed, thus violating its duties under the National Forest Management Act (NFMA) and National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
U.S. District Judge Rosanna Peterson found that the plaintiffs had not made a “clear showing” there is a significant threat of “irreparable injury in the absence of injunctive relief.” Therefore, the court did not need to decide on whether the environmental groups would succeed on their NFMA and NEPA claims.
Caroline Lobdell, executive director and clinical law professor for the Western Resources Legal Center (WRLC), represented S. Martinez Livestock and argued the Risk of Contact (ROC) model used by environmentalists in their lawsuits is “highly speculative” and disease risk is “mitigated successfully through the use of extensive best management practices.”
Peterson concurred in her opinion, writing the ROC model is a “geospatial tool” used to estimate contact and it has limits for analyzing the risk of disease transfer. Peterson also argued the ROC model does not “consider on-the-ground actions that have been taking place to reduce the risk of contact (including reduction of domestic sheep band size, changing of routing/training, etc.).”
Peterson noted USFS cut short Martinez’s grazing on the Mosquito allotment by 10 days due to a bighorn sighting by the allotment.
In her opinion, Peterson also cited that six of the 10 herds in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest have a stable or increasing population and the population as a whole had not experienced “dramatic declines.”
S. Martinez Livestock argued granting an injunction would force them to graze sheep on private land in the Wenas watershed, closer to the primary bighorn range. The WRLC and Martinez also argued, “The economic injuries to the Martinez family and their local and regional communities outweigh the speculative harm to plaintiffs’ outdoor recreational interests to view bighorns.” Peterson wrote while there is an intrinsic value in preserving bighorn sheep, there is also an inherent value “in allowing a community-oriented business to operate.”
While the plaintiffs can appeal the case to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, WRLC is “optimistic that this initial victory will ultimately stand.”
“We would be remiss not to mention the widespread community outreach and help from so many stakeholders across the West. Each of your phone calls and stories helped WRLC shape this case and reach this initial success and we are forever grateful,” Lobdell wrote. — Charles Wallace, WLJ editor