Why We Sued Trump’s BLM Over Its Sagebrush-Juniper Burning Project in Montana

Ecologist Sara Johnson standing in front of a juniper in the Iron Mask region of the Elkhorn Mountains.

It’s no secret that Trump has no respect for and continually attacks, the judicial system.  As the old saying goes, “the fish rots from the head” and the rot has now reached the Bureau of Land Management, which is ignoring a federal court order to analyze cumulative impacts to wildlife on a huge sagebrush-juniper burning project in Montana.   The  Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Native Ecosystems Council, stalwart guardians of the Northern Rockies, are once again back in court to force the agency to comply with the Court’s order.

In March of 2018 the Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Native Ecosystems Council sued to stop the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) plan to burn sagebrush-juniper habitat in the Iron Mask area in the Elkhorn Mountains near Canyon Ferry Reservoir in Montana.  One year later, a federal court ordered the project stopped because the BLM’s analysis was limited to the positive effects of the burning within the project area but did not analyze the overwhelming negative effects of burning sagebrush-juniper habitat on wildlife.

The 300,000 acre Elkhorn Mountains were designated by both the federal government and state to be managed to prioritize benefits to wildlife above all other uses.  Yet the Iron Mask Project, which is in the Elkhorn Area of Critical Environmental Concern, authorizes cutting and burning native juniper trees, sagebrush, and limber pine on 5,397 acres to benefit cattle, not wildlife.

As my co-plaintiff Sara Johnson, PhD., and former Forest Service wildlife biologist succinctly put it: “The BLM only analyzed the disturbance impacts on big game, not the effects of habitat loss on a wide variety of wildlife and birds — and the huge benefits of juniper are both vital and widespread.”

Juniper trees produce up to 20,000 berries per square meter of foliage, providing high-energy food for big game species as well as migratory birds, wild turkeys, and upland game birds throughout fall and winter regardless of deep snow.  Junipers in the Intermountain West also provide breeding habitat for at least 43 species of birds including many that have been identified by Montana as Species of Concern. These include the lark sparrow, loggerhead shrike, pinyon jay, Cassin’s finch, Clark’s nutcracker, ferruginous hawk, golden eagle, northern goshawk, and flammulated owl.  Yet the BLM didn’t analyze the impacts of the project on pinyon jays, one of the fastest declining bird populations in North America that not only depend heavily on the seeds of the limber pine trees that are going to be burned, but also on dense forests of juniper for colonial nesting.

Ironically, the Iron Mask planning area was recently acquired by the BLM with federal taxpayer money that is supposed to be used to purchase habitat for wildlife.  But under President Trump’s highly-criticized agency leadership, the federal government is managing the Elkhorns to benefit a few cattle ranchers while ignoring both the federal court’s order and the damage the project will have on wildlife habitat.

That’s particularly alarming when you consider the number of birds in the United States and Canada has declined by 3 billion, or 29 percent, over the past half-century.  As noted by the New York Times, the precipitous decline in avian populations is mostly due to loss of habitat and increased use of pesticides.

Despite the known scientific facts, Trump’s industry-friendly BLM now plans to destroy even more native habitat to grow grass for cows.  But this is the Elkhorn Wildlife Management Area, not the Elkhorn Cattle Management Area.  To put it in perspective, Montana has millions of cattle but has lost almost 1/3 of our bird populations over the last 50 years and will lose even more by destroying sagebrush and juniper on public lands dedicated to benefit wildlife.

The court’s decision also halted the BLM’s plan to authorize livestock grazing on an additional 5,566 acres within the Elkhorn Conservation Management Area.  But again, as is exhaustively documented by scientific studies, livestock grazing has been shown to negatively impact big game species, like elk, by displacing herds and decreasing available forage.  The BLM says the justification for burning sagebrush is to grow more grass for big game.  But if big game needs more forage, why are they putting cows in there?

The BLM also ignored that cheat grass moves in after burning sagebrush and cutting down junipers.  Cheat grass is a very aggressive noxious weed that has proven almost impossible to eradicate across the West, is inedible for wildlife or cattle after early spring, and has seeds that are so hard and sharp they can penetrate the stomach and intestines of animals that ingest them. The seeds can also blind the eyes of nesting birds that use sagebrush habitat and replaces the forbs that sage grouse depend on to feed their chicks.

Once cheat grass moves in it lengthens the fire season by two months in the spring and two months in the fall since it becomes highly flammable when it dries out in early spring, creating extreme wildfire hazards every year. By comparison, peer reviewed studies found undisturbed sagebrush-juniper habitat only burns every 100 to 200 years in the Intermountain West.  Unfortunately the BLM simply ignored current science and on-the-land experience with cheat grass and wildfires.

The Iron Mask Project is simply the latest attempt by the BLM to get rid of native juniper and sagebrush on public lands in the West in an effort to grow more grass for cattle. We shouldn’t have to sue the BLM again on this issue.  But apparently if it takes a lawsuit to force a Trump administration agency to follow the law and a federal court order on public lands, that’s a fight we’re willing to have.

Mike Garrity is the executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies.