The Idaho Republican told Sally Jewell to examine the Bureau of Land Management decision that will force Owyhee County ranchers to reduce the number of cattle they graze on public lands.
The agency told ranchers in January that it was instituting reductions because three of the four areas in the southeast corner of Owyhee County don't meet rangeland health standards in effect since the late 1990s.
The 252,000 acres are the first of 75 grazing permit renewals U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill ordered the BLM to finish this year after a lawsuit was filed by Western Watersheds Project.
BLM Idaho State Director Steve Ellis said Friday he's the one who has to make sure all permits are completed on time: "It's going to be me who'll be in contempt of court if we don't meet our obligations on those permit renewals."
Ellis said he supports livestock grazing on public lands, but he said his agency has to take a tough stand so that Winmill doesn't issue an order removing all livestock from the range.
"If we don't do what we need to on these grazing decisions," Ellis said, "ranchers will be enjoined from grazing at all out there."
Risch, state officials and others have not challenged the BLM's rangeland standards. But they are asking Ellis and his superiors to give ranchers more time to meet them.
The Owyhee Initiative board of directors, which represents groups as diverse as the Wilderness Society, the Owyhee Cattlemen's Association, the Idaho Conservation League, The Nature Conservancy and the Idaho Farm Bureau, wrote Ellis urging him to seek ways to meet his obligation to the court recognizing its standards for rangeland health.
But the 12 members of the Initiative also wrote: "We have often found that making the effort to explore ways to minimize the impacts of decisions like these can produce more durable, successful results - an outcome we all hope to achieve."
AN ENDANGERED SPECIES?
Adding to the BLM's isolation was the Natural Resources Conservation Service decision early this month to terminate its role as a cooperating agency in the environmental review of the permits, in light of the anger in the ranching community that the Conservation Service serves.
The BLM's proposed grazing reductions come as Idaho Gov. Butch Otter has been working on a state sage grouse plan requiring ranchers to meet the same standards, but giving them more time and flexibility.
Former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told Western states that if they could develop state sage grouse plans that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved, the states could prevent listing of the sage grouse - and the restrictions that come with that - under the Endangered Species Act.
That decision is being driven by an order from Winmill, in a separate lawsuit, to review whether to protect the sage grouse by 2015.
At Jewell's confirmation hearing in Washington, D.C., this week, Risch told Jewell of his success putting together an Idaho roadless plan for 9 million acres of national forest land in Idaho. That 2006 plan brought the Idaho Conservation League and Trout Unlimited to his side when it was challenged in Winmill's court.
The Idaho Conservation League and The Nature Conservancy are working with the governor on his sage grouse plan, following the Idaho roadless plan model. Risch wants Jewell to consider supporting Otter's approach, which he believes will win Winmill's OK.
ONE BOSS, TWO AGENCIES
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been more open to Otter's sage grouse plan than has been the BLM. Both agencies are part of the Department of Interior. And because Jewell will be boss to both, he wants to make sure she talks to them, and that they talk to each other.
"She also now has a clear understanding that the department has an agency, the BLM, that manages soil and plants, and an agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, that manages species," Risch said, "that have issues with each other regarding the management of sage grouse in Idaho."
"Given her commitment to the collaborative method, one would hope she would be able to resolve these issues the way Idahoans would like them to be resolved," Risch told the Statesman.
At Jewell's hearing, Risch noted that, as CEO of outdoor retailer REI, she knows that business needs "certainty and clarity."
The 2,000 Idaho ranchers with permits on public lands "need certainty and clarity they don't have it," Risch said.
Rocky Barker: 377-6484