Letters from the West

Defense bill with grazing provision passes House (Update)

The National Defense Authorization Act, one of the bills Congress must pass to go home for the holidays, includes a Christmas tree of Interior bills aimed to please all sides.

It passed the House 300-119.

There are a bunch of wilderness bills, but not Idaho GOP Rep. Mike Simpson’s Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act that would protect more than 300,000 acres of wilderness in the Boulder-White Clouds.

GOP Rep. Raul Labrador gets a shooting range just north of the Time Zone bridge off of U.S. 95 near Riggins. He also gets a version of the grazing bill he pushed through the House that would automatically renew grazing permits on public land.

This provision restores a so-called grazing rider in place since the early 1990s that was struck down by a federal judge earlier this year in an Idaho case. It would allow a grazing permit to remain in place for up to a decade until the BLM completes a full environmental impact statement process.

“The bill also gives the agency flexibility in managing grazing permit backlogs, making permanent an appropriations rider that has been enacted annually since the late 1990s. That long-tested practice requires renewal of existing grazing permits while the BLM catches up on its backlog, Labrador said.”

If it passes as written, it could undermine the Bureau of Land Management’s efforts to put in place conservation measures that would allow the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to keep sage grouse off of the federal endangered species list. Basically, it could remove the “adequate regulatory mechanisms” states like Idaho have been negotiating with the BLM and the Fish and Wildlife Service to give Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe the certainty the measures they agree are needed will take place.

I heard from Interior Friday the rider woud not force a listing. Here's what Jessica Kershaw, Interior press secretary said in a statement:

"Improper grazing is not a major threat across the range, but can be a factor in specific areas. BLM retains the ability to address improper grazing where it is a threat to sage grouse. The language does not impact BLM's ability to conduct environmental reviews on grazing permits or to change the stipulations placed on those permits, subject to appropriations. This language should not impact the BLM and FWS's work to provide certainty for habitat conservation to conserve the greater sage grouse. "

These are especially important since the U.S. Geological Survey found that over 4 million acres of grazing allotments in priority sage grouse habitat do not meet range health standards.

Even if Ashe were to make the decision not to list, U.S. District Judge Lynn B. Winmill, in Boise, who struck down the rider earlier this year, will review it. If the science and the regulatory mechanisms don’t pass muster, he will force the Fish and Wildlife Service to list the bird.

Then, since listing will affect 60 million acres of sagebrush habitat across 11 states, most pundits expect Congress will step in like it did for wolves in Idaho, Montana, Washington, Oregon and Utah. In the meantime, oil and gas development will come to a halt. Ranchers will be subject to lawsuits under the ESA.

Uncertainty will reign. What makes this especially interesting is at this point Senate Democrats on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee have signed off so far and the Obama Administration hasn’t balked yet.

Conspiracy theorists suggest they want the bird listed, something I haven’t seen in my coverage of the issue.

So who is waving the red flag? It’s been environmental groups, especially the ones who have not been involved in the collaborative talks seeking to prevent listing.

Todd Tucci, an attorney with Idaho-based Advocates for the West, has been involved with the negotiations on the Hill on the grazing bill included in the defense bill. He says the cowboys have a surprise coming.

“The livestock lobby’s approach is going to backfire and result in either making the listing of greater sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act unavoidable, or a "not warranted" listing decision untenable,” Tucci said.

Labrador said Tucci is wrong.

“The assertion by anti-grazing environmental groups that passing a grazing provision will lead to sage grouse listing is completely false," Labrador said. "The legislation ensures the BLM would retain authority to conduct environmental reviews they deem appropriate."

Texas GOP Sen. Ted Cruz and other conservatives are trying to stop the defense bill in part because of the Interior Christmas tree package. Simpson opposes the bill’s approval of funding for the Syrian rebels and the lack of a formal proposal from President Obama, his press secretary Nikki Wallace said.

Both Labrador and Simpson voted against the bill's passage.

Here is what Labrador said Friday:

"I am surprised that the Statesman would allow itself to be manipulated by the extreme environmental groups that have fought to kill this grazing reform for four years. Remember, these groups haven’t been at the table for the extensive collaborative efforts to protect the sage grouse. Why? Because their ultimate aim is ending ranching in the West.

"Now that the bill is about to become law, they employ an 11th-hour scare tactic to kill it. If these groups truly believed the result would be listing of the sage grouse – a goal they support – they would be celebrating its passage.

"The bill was crafted with the bipartisan support of Sens. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., and Martin Heinrich, D-N.M. Mainstream groups like the National Audubon Society don’t agree the result will be listing. That is because the bill was written to comply with U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill’s order.

"It is ludicrous to assert that allowing the BLM to temporarily extend grazing permits will prevent the agency and grazers from working together to preserve sage grouse habitat. With their livelihoods at stake, ranching families have spent years working to protect this bird. I have complete faith they will continue to do so.

"Rather than imperil those collaborative efforts, the automatic temporary renewals of backlogged permits allowed by my bill permits will give grazers the certainty they need to continue their aggressive conservation."