Grazing in Hells Canyon area

An environmental group has lost its bid to stop cattle grazing in the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area, claiming it impacts the Spalding's catchfly wildflower.

A federal judge has ruled that grazing should be allowed to continue on four allotments in the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area.

Magistrate Judge Patricia Sullivan on March 22 released her findings on a lawsuit brought by the Greater Hells Canyon Council of La Grande claiming cattle grazing on the Hells Canyon allotments were imperiling the Spalding’s catchfly, a rare wildflower found only in the inland Northwest.

Sullivan granted a motion for summary judgment to the Forest Service and the interveners in the case, the McClaran family, which holds permits to the allotments, and Wallowa County.

“We are really pleased the magistrate supported our National Environmental Policy Act planning efforts, and we feel it is a good decision,” said District Ranger Kris Stein.

In her findings, Sullivan disagreed with the plaintiff’s assertions that the Forest Service lacked sufficient baseline monitoring data for the catchfly and that the agency was required to consider an alternative that would eliminate grazing in all areas where catchfly grow.

Sullivan’s findings also denied the plaintiff’s claim that the Forest Service violated the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area Act for not having strict enough measures in place to protect catchfly, listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

“The U.S. Forest Service sought to balance the conservation of catchfly with the responsible use of the area’s rangeland resources to support livestock grazing,” the judge wrote.

The suit, filed in January 2018, claimed the agency didn’t provide enough protection for catchfly across the 44,000 acres used for cattle grazing by the McClaran family and a Nez Perce tribal member exercising his treaty rights to graze livestock on ceded territory.

The Nez Perce Tribe has traditionally grazed livestock in Hells Canyon for a few hundred years and the McClarans have wintered livestock in the canyon since the 1920s.

“The McClaran family has demonstrated a commitment to stewardship of the land on which they graze,” Sullivan stated. “For example, since 2005, McClaran Ranch has engaged in a system of rotation of cattle in the pastures within the allotments to tailor livestock utilization to on-the-ground conditions.”

Wallowa County Commissioner Todd Nash said he was pleased with the decision and credited Caroline Lobdell of the Western Resources Legal Center of Lewis and Clark School of Law for representing the McClarans and the county as interveners in the case.

“I can’t express enough how appreciative we are for that program,” Nash said.

The McClarans are preparing for the 100th anniversary of their ranch in June. Scott McClaran said one of the provisions of the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area designation was to allow continued cattle grazing in the canyon to comply with local custom.

“The court’s findings noted the ranching operation’s essential role as stewards — not just of the land, but of the culture and tradition in the area,” McClaran said.

Veronica Warnock, conservation director for the Council, said her group remains convinced about the merits of the case and the importance of managing the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area and Wilderness as Congress intended.

“Under the management plan for the area, when livestock grazing happens at the expense of a threatened species, grazing must yield,” Warnock said in an email.

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