Duck Creek: a case study in grazing reform
In May of 2013, the Department of Interior's Office of Hearings and Appeals ruled on grazing management in a greater sage-grouse habitat area and grazing allotment, Duck Creek, located east of Bear Lake, Utah. Judge Heffernan's ruling reversed the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) grazing decision on cattle stocking rates as a result of the field data collected by by Western Watersheds Project, Wild Utah Project, and other conservation organizations and range scientists.
The judge faulted the grazing decision for not taking into consideration the habitat needs of the native sage-grouse in renewing the grazing permit for the Duck Creek Allotment and a failure to address the habitat degradation which the conservation community identified as one of the likely causes in the decline of sage-grouse numbers in this allotment. Loss of native grasses and forbs identified as occurring in the Duck Creek Allotment has negative implications for a sage-grouse populations' ability to successfully nest and rear broods. This habitat degradation is not only a problem for sage-grouse but represents a loss of forage productivity for other sagebrush inhabiting wildlife as well.
This administrative appeal, which included a record-breaking 12 weeks of hearings and a hearing transcript of 15,000 pages, is the longest grazing hearing on record in the Department of the Interior. Our Executive Director, Jim Catlin, spent an unprecedented 200 hours on the witness stand, meticulously presenting objective facts and vegetation data collected on-site, which reported much lower amounts of available forage than estimated by the methods used in the grazing decision at that time, bringing into question the methods they used. Ruling in favor of the conservation community, Judge Heffernan found that BLM's methods for assessing the health of habitat were inadequate in meeting the agency's stewardship obligations. This ruling brings into question the adequacy of the existing grazing program and monitoring methods to protect sage-grouse habitats.
The decision to remand the Duck Creek Allotment grazing decision could have precedent-setting effects both for grazing management policy and for sage-grouse habitat management throughout the West. Regardless of the final outcome of this case (now potentially winding its way to federal district court after one round of appeal by the BLM) the conservation community looks forward to collaborating with BLM to redesign monitoring and analysis methods to manage sagebrush ecosystems in ways that maintain their stability, resiliency, and function to continue to support sage-grouse and the multitude of rangeland species in the West.