BAKER CITY — A federal judge has upheld a magistrate’s March order allowing cattle grazing to continue in a section of Hells Canyon despite an environmental group’s contention that grazing imperils a threatened plant.

Judge Michael H. Simon adopted the findings of Magistrate Judge Patricia Sullivan, who in March recommended denial of a motion for summary judgment from the Greater Hells Canyon Council of La Grande, which sued the Forest Service in January 2018.

Sullivan recommended approving a motion for summary judgment by the Forest Service and two intervenors in the lawsuit — McClaran Ranch Inc., which has the permit to graze cattle in the contested area, and Wallowa County.

A summary judgment means the judge believes one side in a lawsuit should prevail without having to take the matter to trial.

Darilyn Parry Brown, the Greater Hells Canyon Council’s executive director, said the plaintiffs will be meeting with their attorneys to discuss the lawsuit.

Kris Stein, who manages the Forest Service’s Hells Canyon National Recreation Area and Eagle Cap Ranger District, said she was pleased that Simon upheld Sullivan’s March ruling.

The Greater Hells Canyon Council’s lawsuit named as defendants the U.S. Forest Service and Stein.

Greater Hells Canyon Council argues that cattle grazing along the lower Imnaha River endangers the Spalding’s catchfly, a perennial species that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed as threatened in October 2001.

Spalding’s catchfly grows on grassland prairies mainly in the Palouse region of Washington, as well as in parts of Oregon, Idaho and Montana, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service. Its name, “catchfly,” refers to the dense, sticky hair that cover its leaves and stems and can trap insects and dust.

In September 2015 Stein signed a decision allowing grazing to continue on four allotments covering about 44,000 acres.

During an analysis that preceded Stein’s decision, Forest Service employees found 948 Spalding’s catchfly plants, distributed among 70 patches and three of the allotments, in that area.

No plants were found in one of the allotments.

The plaintiff described the catchfly population in the grazing allotments as “vulnerably small.”

There are much larger populations, of around 40,000 plants, on The Nature Conservancy’s Zumwalt Preserve, also in Wallowa County, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

In the 2015 decision authorizing grazing to continue in areas with catchfly populations, Stein acknowledged that “there is uncertainty about the extent of the effects of cattle grazing on Spalding’s catchfly or habitat.”

However, she wrote that she picked the option that “provides the most complete range of options for protecting Spalding’s catchfly habitat.” That option, Stein wrote, “introduces additional management activities to protect the habitat and plants while monitoring changes to determine the effectiveness of those management changes.”

One of those activities is changing the grazing rotation in some areas to reduce the risk that cattle will eat Spalding’s catchfly plants or trample on the plants or its habitat.

Stein said cattle graze in the allotments from November through May.

Greater Hells Canyon Council did not seek an injunction to stop grazing while the lawsuit is in court.

Officials from Greater Hells Canyon Council point out that the Forest Service’s 2003 management plan for the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area requires the agency to have a recovery plan for all threatened species, including Spalding’s catchfly.

Sullivan wrote in her findings in March that “the Forest Service used the best available science to determine that its decision would benefit the catchfly. The Forest Service’s choices of how to proceed with limited data and in the face of uncertainty were decisions within Forest Service’s expertise that are entitled to deference.”

Sullivan also concluded that the Forest Service complied with federal environmental laws in approving grazing plans for the four allotments, and that the agency had adequate information about the Spalding’s catchfly to assess the potential effects of grazing on the plant.

When the Greater Hells Canyon Council filed its lawsuit, it issued a press release saying it would withdraw the complaint if the Forest Service took steps such as ensuring cattle graze in areas less vulnerable to soil damage from their hooves, and restricting grazing during periods when the ground is excessively wet and soft.

Stein said Forest Service employees and members of Wallowa Resources have inspected the four grazing allotments both in 2018 and this year and found several hundred Spalding’s catchfly plants that hadn’t been surveyed before on the Oregon side of Hells Canyon.

“I feel really good about that,” Stein said. “It’s a positive feeling about the status of the plant. It’s a really special plant and we really want to do what we can to protect it.”

She said the surveys over the past two years have helped her and other Forest Service officials better understand Spalding’s catchfly.

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