Lawsuit targets grazing in Sawtooth National Recreation Area

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BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A conservation group has filed a lawsuit contending the U.S. Forest Service is violating environmental laws by issuing grazing permits to central Idaho livestock growers with a long history of violating permit restrictions.

Western Watersheds Project in the lawsuit filed Wednesday says the Forest Service is issuing the permits despite knowing cattle grazers in the Satwooth National Recreation Area are not following guidelines.

The area also includes the newly-formed White Clouds Wilderness federally protected area.

The environmental group says the cattle grazing violations harm recreational values in the popular destination, prevent plants from recovering and damage streams with federally protected salmon, steelhead and bull trout.

"The Forest Service itself has documented repeated overgrazing and cattle trespass into unauthorized areas that degrades the streams on these allotments, with violations escalating in recent years" Laurie Rule, senior attorney with Advocates for the West, said in a statement. "The agency's perpetual authorization of grazing in the face of such widespread problems violates the law and pushes these imperiled fish closer to extinction."

The group is asking a federal judge to reject the Forest Service's recent approval of the grazing permits.

Forest Service spokeswoman Carol Brown on Thursday said the agency did not have an immediate comment.

The lawsuit focuses on grazing allotments for four ranchers at locations along the Salmon River's upper east and lower east forks.

Rancher Syd Dowton has the upper allotment and said he uses it for grazing 145 to 160 cow-calf pairs, meaning one cow and its calf, each summer.

That's about half the number of cows he used to graze, and Dowton said the grazing provides a benefit because the cows eat grass that could burn and cause wildfires.

"Anytime you've got a use you've got an impact, but I don't think they're causing any damage," he said.

The cattle do sometimes wander into restricted areas because elk in the area break through fences, leaving openings for cattle, Dowton said.

The lawsuit is based mainly on information from the Forest Service the environmental group obtained through a public records request. The lawsuit lists damage to the grazing areas and notes that penalties the Forest Service imposed were often later reduced.

The lawsuit cites environmental laws involving land management policies. Western Watersheds Project late last month also sent a 60-day notice stating its intent to sue over what the group said are violations of the Endangered Species Act.

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