October 2, 2007

Judge prevents BLM from extending grazing rights

Victor Valley Daily Press

A federal judge issued a temporary order on Monday preventing the Bureau of Land Management from increasing the number of cattle a local ranch can graze on 136,000 acres, just north of Lucerne Valley.

Conservation groups sued the BLM over concerns that desert tortoises and other endangered species could lose their habitats due to the grazing cattle.

Under the current lease, the BLM is allowed to let the nearby Shield F Ranch graze up to 175 cows on public lands near the Ord Mountains. The area includes 117,000 acres of desert tortoise habitat. Shield F currently has about 25 cows on the land.

The BLM previously allowed up to 295 cows on the lands, but after a legal challenge in 2001, was ordered to reduce the maximum number allowed until the Western Mojave land-use plan was developed in 2006. The BLM now seeks to return to the pre-2001 allotment, but a consortium of four environmental groups appealed the plan.

Harvey C. Sweitzer, an administrative law judge with the Department of Interior’s Office of Hearings and Appeals, ruled that the effects of the lease extension on wildlife should be further explored before the 10-year lease is extended.

Sweitzer will further consider the matter in a hearing to be held in the coming months. The hearing has not yet been scheduled, said Luke Smart, an attorney adviser with the hearings office. He said that conservation groups and the BLM frequently disagree over the effects that cattle grazing has on the environment.

“These are kinds of issues that come up, and these are the types of issues the BLM, grazers and conservation groups wrestle with,” Smart said.

Michael Conner, California science director with the Western Watersheds Project, one of the conservation groups behind the lawsuit, said he was pleased with the decision. He said feels the land needs time to recover from the effects of past grazing.

“We’re very happy with this ruling because the judge is basically agreeing that our case has merit,” he said.

Conner said that grazing cattle can trample tortoises, tortoise eggs as well as burrows. He said other endangered species such as the big-horned sheep and Mojave monkey flower could also be at risk.

Anthony Chavez, a rangeland management specialist with the BLM, said he disagrees with the idea that the current herd of 25 cows on 154,000 acres is a burden on he environment. He said the terms of the new lease did not represent an increase in the number of cattle because the levels were allowed prior to 2001.

He said the agency has not yet decided how to proceed and will wait for the upcoming hearing.

Members of the Shield F Ranch did not respond to calls seeking comment.