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Several environmental groups are suing the U.S. Forest Service to force the agency to conduct a full environmental analysis of a cattle grazing allotment where Yellowstone bison migrate in search of food each winter.

Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund and other groups allege that the Gallatin National Forest in December rubber-stamped a grazing permit that lies at the heart of the bison conflicts west of Yellowstone National Park. The agency violated federal law by putting off environmental analysis of Horse Butte Allotment for more than three years, according to the lawsuit.

Forest Service officials say a 1995 law requires the agency to approve grazing permits if environmental analysis hasn’t been completed. Tim Preso, of Earthjustice, says that same law requires the agency to adhere to a schedule and does not allow the agency to procrastinate indefinitely.

The Horse Butte Allotment includes about 2,200 acres of federal land on a peninsula that stretches west into Hebgen Lake. That area is the primary focus of bison hazing efforts each winter, and environmentalists believe a proper environmental analysis would show that cattle grazing is an improper use of those public lands.

Preso said the Horse Butte allotment near Hebgen Lake should be managed for bison and other public wildlife rather than private profits. The allotment brings in about $1,200 annually, while the federal government spends about $1.7 million annually managing bison to reduce conflicts with cattle, he said.

Other groups involved in the lawsuit are the InterTribal Bison Cooperative, Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Defenders of Wildlife, National Wildlife Federation, Wyoming Wildlife Federation and the Gallatin Wildlife Association.

“Reallocating this allotment to wildlife and allowing bison to use it isn’t going to solve the problem, but it will be a step in the right direction,” said Michael Scott of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, noting that the Gallatin’s decision to continue grazing on the area perpetuates the problem.

Marion Cherry, a biologist for the Gallatin National Forest, said the 1995 Rescissions Act gave the Forest Service 15 years to complete a backlog of analysis required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) for all of its grazing permits.

“It also said if you can’t get NEPA done during a certain time period … you must reissue that permit,” she said. “The schedule was never hard wired. … Things get postponed at times, and that’s what happened here.”

The agency has had some staffing problems and hasn’t been able to complete the analysis for the Horse Butte permit but plans to begin the process later this year, she said. Once the process is complete, possibly in 2002 or 2003, the agency’s decision will be implemented immediately rather than when the permit expires 10 years from now, she said.

Cherry said the Horse Butte allotment receives the most pressure from bison each winter, but the agency believes closing the allotment wouldn’t solve the problem.

“The way we look at it is the fellow that grazes cattle on this allotment also grazes cattle on private land adjacent to the allotment,” she said.

Dellas Munns, of Rexburg, Idaho, one member of the family that grazes cattle on the Horse Butte allotment, said he uses the land to graze 142 cattle and their calves as well as 30 horses. He said believes that bison belong in Yellowstone National Park, where they won’t damage his fences or threaten his cattle with brucellosis.

Even if he lost the grazing allotment, Munns said he would maintain cattle on his private lands. Moreover, other ranchers have livestock in the area around the lake, “and it’s just a short distance across that lake,” he said.

“I have cattle, and I have to keep them where they ought to be,” he added. “Those bison are supposed to be in the park. … I don’t see why I should have to put up with them on my private ground.”

GYC’s Scott said environmentalists have worked with the Forest Service for years to try to find an alternative, knowing that when bison leave Yellowstone “they head right for Horse Butte.”

Scott said GYC offered to pay for an another grazing allotment in Idaho, the Munns turned that offer down. GYC also met with Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth when Bosworth was a regional forester in Montana to find an alternate grazing allotment.

Preso said a multi-agency bison management plan approved Dec. 20 specifically says Gallatin National Forest will complete environmental analysis prior to issuing another grazing permit for the Horse Butte allotment.

“On Dec. 19, which was the day before that document was issued, they had already reissued that permit without NEPA analysis,” he said. “The agency has made numerous statements that they were going to conduct NEPA analysis, and they have not done it.”

Jeff Tollefson can be reached at (307) 527-7250 or at jtollefson@billingsgazette.com

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