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Judge blocks grazing rules on federal lands

A judge on Friday blocked new rules governing how ranchers use 160 million acres of federal land, saying a federal agency had given in to pressure from the livestock industry.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A judge has blocked new rules governing how ranchers use 160 million acres of federal land, saying a federal agency had given in to pressure from the livestock industry.

The Bureau of Land Management violated the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act in creating the rules, U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill ruled Friday.

The judge said the BLM's rule revisions would have loosened restrictions on grazing on public land nationwide, limited the amount of public comment the BLM had to consider and diluted the BLM's authority to sanction ranchers for grazing violations.

"While the BLM justifies the changes as making it more efficient, the BLM was not their originator — it was the grazing industry and its supporters that first proposed them," Winmill wrote.

The new regulations, the first overhaul of the rules since 1995, were first proposed by the agency in December 2003, but Winmill temporarily blocked them last August just before they went into effect.

The judge said Friday that the revised regulations will not take effect until the BLM consults with the Fish and Wildlife Service, as required under the Endangered Species Act, and takes a hard look at the potential environmental impacts of the grazing changes.

The ruling was in response to a lawsuit brought two years ago by the environmental group Western Watersheds Project challenging the revisions.

"The judge saw it for what it was, which was BLM's efforts to ignore its own scientists, freeze out the public and transfer ownership of public resources to the livestock industry _ all of which would cause pernicious effects on threatened and endangered species," said Todd Tucci, an attorney representing Western Watershed Project.

Matt Spangler, a BLM spokesman in Washington, D.C., said the agency had just received the ruling and could not yet comment.

Andrew Anes, spokesman for the Department of Justice, also said that the decision was under review and that he could not comment.

Many of the revisions in the grazing rules were contrary to the findings of a team of BLM scientists who reviewed the environmental impact of the rules. The scientists found that the new regulations would have a slow but long-term effect on wildlife and biological diversity.

The changes would have a "very long-lasting adverse effect to the wildlife of the public lands of the West," the scientists wrote.

But BLM officials then created a separate team of employees to review the scientists' report, Winmill said, and those employees deleted or softened the scientists' findings in the BLM's draft environmental impact statement.

The judge faulted the rules for making it harder to sanction ranchers. While the BLM is "reluctant to convict cattle of grazing damage, the BLM is not hesitant to acquit," Winmill said. "The BLM never explains that distinction."