By Keith Ridler
The U.S. government is keeping details secret about a cattle grazing program in six Western states that could be harming habitat and endangered species, an environmental group says.
In a lawsuit filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court, Western Watersheds Project said the Interior Department is unlawfully withholding information from the public about a grazing initiative announced in 2017.
“This is the latest example of the (Trump) administration favoring industrial agriculture over conservation, biodiversity, and wildlife,” said Scott Lake, Idaho Director of Western Watersheds Project.
The group is asking a federal judge to force the government to release information about the program in Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Montana, Wyoming and Colorado.
The environmental group said the program puts private ranchers in charge of grazing on public lands without regard for wildlife such as struggling sage grouse and endangered salmon.
The U.S. Justice Department, which defends agencies in lawsuits, didn’t immediately respond to an inquiry about the suit Wednesday from The Associated Press.
In announcing the program, then Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said it would provide grazing permit holders an unprecedented level of flexibility while also protecting public lands.
The Interior Department plan involves lands administered by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. The plan sites “Outcome-Based Grazing Authorizations,” which it said would “emphasize conservation performance, ecological outcomes and cooperative management of public lands that will also provide greater opportunity for an operator to manage ranching operations that are both economically and environmentally sustainable.”
Western Watersheds Project filed a Freedom of Information Act request to find out how the plan was working. But the group said in its lawsuit that the Bureau of Land Management didn’t make a final determination about the request and the Interior Department never made a decision about the group’s appeal seeking the information.
The group said those lack of responses and missed deadlines are violations of the Freedom of Information Act.
The Bureau of Land Management manages livestock grazing, mostly cattle and sheep, on 240,000 square miles (620,000 square kilometers) of public lands, mainly in the U.S. West. That involves about 18,000 permits and leases on more than 21,000 grazing allotments.
The 10-year permits and leases can be renewed if the agency determines conditions of the permit or lease are being met. Those conditions include such things as the health of the rangeland.
The Outcome-Based Grazing Authorizations, the Bureau of Land Management said on its website, is an effort to allow livestock grazers to better respond to such things as drought and wildfire.
But Western Watersheds Project contends the plan increases livestock grazing with little regard for environmental consequences.