Mar 6, 2013 - By Eric Blom, Staff WriterPermittees and the Western Watersheds Project are appealing the decision, and the State of Wyoming is an intervener in both appeals.
A hearing that could decide the future of livestock grazing on the former Green Mountain Common allotment is continuing.
Since late February, Department of the Interior administrative law judge Andrew Pearlstein has been hearing appeals to a 2011 decision by the Bureau of Land Management's Lander Field office regarding the grazing area.
Permittees and the Western Watersheds Project are appealing the decision, and the State of Wyoming is an intervener in both appeals.
In 2011, Lander field office manager Rick Vander Voet broke the Green Mountain Common Allotment into four pieces, established deferred grazing systems, reduced the number of animals ranchers could stock, implemented standards for forage use and initiated range improvement projects.
The former Green Mountain Common allotment's area covers 522,000 acres in southern Fremont County and parts of Sweetwater County. Sixteen permittees hold 19 grazing licenses for those rangelands.
Vander Voet said he expected the hearing to continue through March, and he does not anticipate an immediate decision. He added that appellants also could appeal the hearing judge's ruling at another level.
Pearlstein began the hearing at the Pronghorn Lodge in Lander by asking for opening statements from all parties.
The first speaker was John Retrum, an attorney with the Department of the Interior Office of the Solicitor who is representing the BLM in the hearing.
He said the case will turn on two questions: whether the level of permitted use in the 2011 decisions exceeds the carrying capacity of the rangeland and whether the permitees' issues with the decision warrant a modification.
"This is going to be a battle of the experts," Retrum said. "The BLM is in the middle."
He went on to say the federal agency's decisions are reasonable, but several factors complicate its success.
First, the land in question had been grazed for more than 100 years without a comprehensive grazing plan, he said, and the rangeland did not improve after a 1999 plan.
That plan reduced stocking levels by 45 percent, Retrum said.
A drought affected the area for several years after the plan and contributed to its lack of success, he added. The 2011 plan still has not been fully implemented, he continued, and needs a chance to succeed.
Western Watershed Project's lawyer Judy Brawer spoke next.
She asserted that ranching activities in the former GMCA degraded its uplands and downlands.
"Any continued livestock grazing, at least in the short term, will continue this degradation, and the new monitoring strategy will do nothing to prevent their loss," Brawer said. "Ultimately the GMCA is overstocked."
She said upland areas in particular are in bad shape, and the BLM is monitoring those areas inadequately. Overgrazing in those areas away from water hurts sage grouse populations.
Ultimately, WWP is asking the judge to reduce the stocking rates of the allotments and modify the BLM's monitoring scheme.
Wyoming senior assistant attorney general James Kaste took aim at WWP's appeal in his opening.
He said the BLM understands the rangeland conditions and called the 2011 decision a "balanced and well informed decision to walk rather than run" to rectify those conditions.
"The disagreement of degree does not warrant a modification of the decision," Kaste said.
He said Wyoming will bring knowledgeable rangeland managers to testify that there is more than enough forage for the number of livestock currently permitted and the allotment is conservatively stocked.
A state witness will testify the 2011 plan will improve range conditions and not adversely affect the sage grouse, Kaste added.
"In light of the testimony, the state believes that at the end of this hearing, we will agree the 2011 grazing decisions will be affirmed," he concluded.
The permittees' attorney, Brandon Jensen, said he would wait to give his opening statement until he presents his case in chief.
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