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Environmental group sues US Forest Service over claims of overgrazing in central Utah

By Carter Williams, | Posted - Nov. 26, 2019 at 12:15 p.m.

SALT LAKE CITY — An environmental group filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service last week accusing the federal agency of allowing for overgrazing in an area in central Utah they say is important for the greater sage-grouse and other species.

The Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit based in Idaho, filed a lawsuit against the federal agency in Salt Lake City’s U.S. District Court Wednesday. Within its 57-page complaint, the group states the Forest Service allowed ranchers to overgraze at Monroe Mountain, which is located in Sevier and Piute counties. The land in question is within Fishlake National Forest territory, which the Forest Service oversees.

The lawsuit argues overgrazing could lead to environmental problems in the area, and the group is asking the court to overturn the Forest Service’s decision to allow temporary grazing permits and annual operating instructions at three grazing allotments at the mountain. The complaint alleges the Forest Service violated the National Environmental Policy Act, the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, and the Administrative Procedure Act.

The lawsuit comes after an employee of the group visited public parts of the mountain for a habitat study and reported conditions related to cattle on some of the allotments, according to the lawsuit. Group leaders allege cattle numbers are “too high relative to available forage” and that has led to “remarkable qualities” of the mountain being damaged.

"When I visited these allotments last month with other members, we saw severe over-use of new aspen shoots and native bunchgrasses, as well as damage to riparian areas near springs," Western Watersheds Project ecosystems specialist Laura Welp, said in a written statement Friday after the lawsuit was filed. "We could visibly see the degradation of these lands due to years of hands-off management by the Forest Service."

The lawsuit also alleges the Forest Service continues to authorize grazing at “levels that repeatedly lead to over-utilization of forage vegetation” even after some of the permittees weren’t compliant with permit terms.

The complaint argues the Forest Service caved in to demands from ranchers, which it says led to overgrazing. The lawsuit accuses some of those contributing to the overgrazing of being “stoked by the anti-government rhetoric of Cliven Bundy and other fringe extremists.” Bundy is the Nevada rancher who gained fame after a standoff with the Bureau of Land Management over a grazing spat in 2014. The case against him was later tossed in 2018.

“It appears that USFS’s failures to remedy damaging livestock use have been influenced by threats made by a handful of scofflaw grazing permittees on Monroe Mountain who refuse to acknowledge the agency's role as trustee of the national forests for all Americans, and who refuse to abide by the most basic of permit terms and conditions,” Western Watersheds Project leaders wrote in its claim, citing Forest Service call records.

Threats of violence were later denied by ranchers in a reported meeting with federal and state officials, the complaint acknowledges.

Federal court records did not list a legal representative for the Forest Service in the case as of Tuesday. reached out to the agency on Monday, but an official declined to comment on the case, stating the Forest Service doesn’t comment on pending litigation.

An order to propose scheduling for a hearing was filed Friday, but no court dates had been set as of Tuesday morning. Western Watersheds Project states it’s a nonprofit that seeks to protect watersheds and wildlife in the western U.S. It lists having 9,500 members and supporters in the U.S.

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