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Malheur Wild and Scenic Rivers Bull Trout Habitat (ONDA v. U.S. Forest Service)

This lawsuit challenges USFS decisions allowing livestock grazing in bull trout habitat within and adjacent to the Malheur and North Fork Malheur Wild and Scenic River corridors.

Bull trout
Bull trout.
Photo: US Fish and Wildlife Service

This case involves United States Forest Service decisions approving livestock grazing within and adjacent to protected corridors along the Malheur and North Fork Malheur Wild and Scenic Rivers in eastern Oregon. The rivers and a dozen or so of their tributaries provide critical spawning, rearing, and migratory areas for bull trout, a native fish protected as a “threatened” species under the Endangered Species Act. Bull trout require the cleanest, coldest water of any inland native fish in western North America. But after a century of livestock grazing and other human activities that have caused widespread damage to and loss of these habitats, bull trout today occur in less than half of their historic range. There are only a few hundred adult bull trout left in the Malheur and North Fork Malheur River watersheds.

Under the National Forest Management Act, the Forest Service must ensure that any grazing it authorizes is consistent with the Forest Plan that guides the use of the Malheur National Forest. The Forest Plan includes a strategy (known as “INFISH”) “to arrest habitat degradation and initiate recovery” of inland fish habitat; but to do so, the Forest Service must modify or suspend grazing practices that “retard or prevent attainment of Riparian Management Objectives.” Under the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, the Forest Service must “protect and enhance” the “outstandingly remarkable” values of the Malheur and North Fork Malheur Wild and Scenic River corridors.

Each year for more than a decade now, grazing authorized by the Forest Service on the Malheur National Forest continues to degrade instream and riparian (streamside) habitat essential to the bull trout’s survival. The cattle trample stream banks and consume vegetation that would otherwise stabilize the banks. That in turn results in shallow, wide streams that are too warm for the fish to survive, and soil erosion that buries rocky substrates the fish need to build their nests, called “redds.” The Forest Service consistently has failed to meet quantifiable, habitat-based standards protective of these habitat attributes, or to modify or suspend grazing that is retarding or preventing attainment of those ecological standards, as required under INFISH and the Forest Plan. Also undermining meaningful management of the river corridors and their key bull trout tributary streams is the Forest Service’s failure to complete or update required allotment management plans for each grazing unit the agency has designated along the rivers.

In turn, the Forest Service’s chronic failure to meet INFISH habitat standards has resulted in, at best, maintaining a degraded environmental baseline and, more commonly, a worsening downward trend—in violation of the agency’s duty to “protect and enhance” the bull trout and its habitat in the Malheur and North Fork Malheur Wild and Scenic River corridors.

ONDA filed this case in 2003. Early on, the Court noted that “the way in which grazing has been managed on these lands is clearly at odds with the statutory mandates related to the protection of the river corridors and the species that depend on them.”  June 10, 2004 Opinion (Dkt # 114) at 19. ONDA successfully appealed to the Ninth Circuit an early dismissal of the case on jurisdictional grounds, setting important legal precedent along the way. Today, the case is finally back before the district court on the merits. It follows on other recent successes protecting nearby habitat for steelhead trout.

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