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SALT LAKE CITY — A lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service alleges renegade cattle ranchers are intimidating the federal agency to allow illegal grazing on Monroe Mountain with threats of violence, arrests of federal employees, and calling in a militia called the “Oath Keepers.”
The complaint in U.S. District Court for Utah was filed in late November by the conservation organization Western Watersheds Project, asking the court to rescind grazing allotments against a trio of ranching groups the group says is causing environmental damage on Monroe Mountain in Fishlake National Forest.
The mountain is in Sevier and Piute counties and includes sensitive habitat for the imperiled greater sage grouse, critical aquatic species, and groves of Aspen clones that are suffering from excessive and illegal grazing, according to the 57-page complaint.
Specifically, the lawsuit targets the temporary grazing permits issued for the Kingston, Forshea and Manning Creek allotments.
“To placate a handful of bad actors, the (Forest Service) has bent and broken its own laws and regulations and continues to authorize livestock grazing without any reasonable expectation of permit compliance,” the suit states.
It goes on to emphasize that the “specter of violence is not a valid excuse for the (Forest Service) to abdicate its role as trustee of National Forest Service lands on behalf of all Americans.”
Ranchers have repeatedly violated the terms of their grazing permits for years and called the federal agency’s regulations “silly rules” that don’t require adherence, the suit says.
In 2015, the agency received a tip that one of ranchers was “calling in the militia” known as the Oath Keepers, which was involved in conflicts involving Cliven Bundy’s notorious fight with federal agencies over grazing in Nevada, the suit states.
Bundy’s defiance of the federal government for two decades over his cattle led to a 2014 standoff with armed federal agencies and stoked an outcry of support among some anti-federal government sympathizers angry at regulations they assert are choking livestock ranchers out of business.
Bundy contended the federal lands in Nevada are not owned by the U.S. government, but by the state.
This lawsuit claims these Utah ranchers, like Bundy, don’t recognize the authority of the federal government and have snubbed grazing requirements for years.
One rancher, it says, told the U.S. Forest Service he had the backing of the local sheriff’s office and, at one point in this protracted dispute, a threatened arrest of the local ranger supervisor influenced grazing permit decisions.
The suit also contends that state agencies have been kowtowing to the renegade ranchers for fear of a Bundy-style confrontation at Monroe Mountain.
Western Watersheds Project has repeatedly sought detailed explanations and justification from the U.S. Forest Service over renewal of these temporary permits, but the agency has not sufficiently detailed the basis for issuing permits in the face of yearslong noncompliance, the lawsuit asserts.
“When the Forest Service tried to do the right thing and suspend these livestock grazing permits for multiple willful violations of the terms and conditions, the ranchers responded with threats of violence,” said John Persell, staff attorney with Western Watersheds Project. “That’s an ugly ultimatum, and it’s unfortunate that the Forest Service has to deal with these folks. But it’s unfair to the Americans who own these public lands to let them be continually degraded by scofflaws.”
According to its website, Western Watersheds Project targets what it says is the harmful effects of livestock grazing on public lands in the West.
The Forest Service could not be reached for comment.