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Beating Trump and Saving Junipers in the Elkhorns

Cassin’s finch. Photo: US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Our nation is in a perilous place when federal agencies refuse to comply with federal court orders. Yet, that’s just what Trump’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) did in its rush to destroy sagebrush, juniper, and limber pine habitat in the Iron Mask area of Montana’s federally-designated Elkhorn Wildlife Management Area.  I’m glad to announce the Court just issued a Preliminary Injunction to stop the rogue agency in its tracks.

Background

The 300,000 acre Elkhorn Mountains are state and federally designated 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 sagebrush, juniper trees, and limber pine on 5,397 acres to benefit a few local cattle ranchers, not the area’s abundant and highly-prized wildlife.

In March of 2018 the Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Native Ecosystems Council sued to stop the BLM’s plan to burn sagebrush-juniper habitat in the Iron Mask area. One year later, Federal Judge Susan Watters ordered the project stopped because the agency failed to analyze the cumulative impacts of the project on wildlife…a conclusion that had been reached by the Magistrate Judge, who wrote:

“The Court finds that it is in the public’s interest for BLM to fulfill its mandate under NEPA before proceeding further with treatments in the Iron Mask. The likely failure to take a hard look at sensitive wildlife species in the Iron Mask undermines Defendants arguments: BLM could not possibly know whether the vegetation treatments will benefit or harm wildlife when it has not studied cumulative impacts to species it has designated sensitive. The obvious inference is that sensitive species are sensitive to environmental damage, alteration, or impacts. Without the requisite analysis, the public interest falls squarely on the Plaintiffs’ side.”

However, when the BLM issued the Supplemental Environmental Analysis required by the Court it ignored the mandate to analyze the impacts of the project on all wildlife, not just big game.  So the Alliance and Native Ecosystems Council filed another lawsuit against the agency in February and followed that with a Motion for a Preliminary Injunction to halt the project in March.

Why it matters

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.

The BLM didn’t even 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.

That’s particularly troublesome 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, that was mostly due to loss of habitat and increased use of pesticides.

Conclusion

Under President Trump’s highly-criticized leadership and that of the corporate lobbyists he appointed to run federal agencies like the BLM, the federal government is trying to manage the Elkhorns to benefit a few cattle ranchers while ignoring a federal court mandate to analyze the damage their project will have on bird habitat.  Simply put, it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever for the BLM to destroy even more native habitat to grow grass for cows.  Montana has millions of cows — but this is the Elkhorn Wildlife Management Area, not the Elkhorn Cattle Management Area.

We shouldn’t have to sue the Trump administration to force them to comply with the legal mandate of a Federal Court’s Order.  But apparently that’s what it takes when we have a President who thinks the laws and constitution don’t apply to him.  And rest assured, fellow conservationists, the Alliance will continue to fight Trump and his corporate lackeys until the day he is forced from the office he should never have occupied.

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

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