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Elkhorn Mountains

A federal judge has halted a Bureau of Land Management grazing, prescribed fire and juniper removal project in the Elkhorn Mountains.

U.S. District Judge Susan P. Watters ruled in favor of Native Ecosystems Council and Alliance for the Wild Rockies on one of their five legal challenges to BLM’s proposed management in the Iron Mask area northwest of Townsend. She ordered both the project halted and that the agency perform additional environmental analysis.

BLM signed an environmental assessment for the Iron Mask Planning Area in 2015. The project included planning for a roughly 5,600-acre property the agency acquired through the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. Among the plans were about 1,000 acres of prescribed burning and cutting conifer trees on about 4,200 acres. The plan also called for a “forage reserve” grazing system, which would allow livestock grazing in cases where other grazing allotments were unavailable due to circumstances such as drought or wildfire.

The groups took issue with the plans, saying they risked compromising wildlife habitat and that BLM’s environmental analysis was inadequate.

Watters agreed with the groups that BLM failed to analyze the “cumulative effects” of past and future projects in the area, and the overall impacts of those projects along with Iron Mask.

"The Iron Mask project authorizes cutting and burning juniper trees and limber pine on 5,397 acres near Townsend to benefit cattle, not wildlife,” said Mike Garrity, executive director for the alliance. “The judge, however, ruled that the BLM’s cumulative impact analysis was limited to the positive effects of the burning within the project or planning area and did not analyze the negative effects of burning sagebrush-juniper habitat on wildlife, which are overwhelming.”

The decision cites cumulative impacts from nearby burning, timber or thinning projects, but does not address grazing. Garrity noted that the original lawsuit included concerns about grazing but agreed the decision was not favorable for his group on that point. He believed it was important to include because the judge halted grazing as part of her decision.

Watters ruled for BLM on the other legal challenges, which included environmental analysis of the project itself. She found that preceding documents, such as a 2009 resource management plan for all BLM land in the area, dealt with many of the underlying legal challenges. The groups should have sued at that point to challenge the merits of cutting, burning and grazing, she wrote. She also found that the groups failed to demonstrate Iron Mask ran counter to requirements of the management plan.

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Scott Haight, BLM Butte field manager, said the agency respected the judge’s decision and was deciding next steps on complying with it. He expected the project to move forward following additional analysis.

“There’s some good stuff for BLM – four of five issues we prevailed on – so we were pleased to see that,” he said. “As far as the cumulative impacts, we’ve been discussing and will be discussing those for the next couple of days … and how that will be accomplished.”

As a result of the ruling, Watters halted BLM from implementing the Iron Mask project. The project was remanded to the agency with BLM ordered to prepare supplemental environmental analysis.

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Reporter Tom Kuglin can be reached at 447-4076 @IR_TomKuglin

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