In a significant ruling on Wednesday, August 9th, a judge declared that the Bureau of Land Management failed to adequately consider the effects of cattle grazing on the environment in Sonoran Desert National Monument.
The judge, Susan Bolton of the U.S. District Court, ordered the agency to rewrite its resource management plan in the ruling. Bolton delivered this verdict a couple of months after reviewing various interpretations of the law.
This all started with a lawsuit filed by the Western Watersheds Project — an environmental organization based in Idaho. In 2021, they challenged the decision made by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to allow cattle to graze in Sonoran Desert National Monument. It was from this filing that led to Bolton finding the grazing management plan to be in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act.
But this is not the first time that the Western Watersheds Project has challenged the BLM on their grazing policies.
When then-President Bill Clinton created Sonoran Desert National Monument in 2001, it protected nearly 500,000 acres to the southwest of the Phoenix metropolitan area.
Although livestock grazing was prohibited in the southern half of the monument, located south of the Interstate 8, it was permitted in the northern half as long as the BLM verified that it wasn’t endangering the approximately 600 different species, many considered threatened, that make the desert their home.
However, issues arose when the Western Watersheds disputed the BLM’s 2012 resource management plan, which authorized grazing in about two-thirds of the monument’s northern half. By 2016, a federal judge agreed with the Western Watersheds that the BLM hadn’t adequately assessed the potential environmental impact of grazing and instructed the bureau to revise their plan.
The BLM updated the plan in 2020, surprisingly allowing grazing on an additional 21% across the entire northern half of the monument, resulting in the lawsuit Western Watersheds filed in 2021.
In a June 2023 hearing with Judge Bolton, Western Watersheds’ Attorney Lauren Rule stated that their ultimate wish is for grazing to be completely banned across the monument.
However, they would be satisfied if there was at least a truthful evaluation of the situation. Rule went on to critique the bureau’s analysis, stating that it was based on faulty assumptions.
In its 2020 judgment, the BLM had made a claim that livestock never roam more than two miles away from a water source. Therefore, they assumed that any land on the monument that is located more than two miles away from water would be safe from any potential damage caused by grazing. Western Watersheds disagreed with this assumption, as did Judge Bolton.
All parties have agreed that the effects of grazing are the worst near water sources. However, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) was unable to provide any tangible evidence in support of their the two-mile rule. Bolton also pointed out that some of the evidence on the record contradicts the two-mile rule, and the bureau did not take this evidence into account as they should have.
Bolton wrote that the bureau made it easier to decide if grazing was bad for plants, and that broke the National Environmental Policy Act again.
Bolton also ruled that the BLM broke the National Environmental Policy Act again when it lowered the standard for determining whether or not plants were harmed by grazing.
The BLM has now been ordered to revise the resource management plan and resubmit it. But while Bolton agreed with the plaintiffs on the issue of the National Environmental Policy Act violation, but she dismissed their other allegations.
Western Watersheds contended that the bureau’s resource management plan violated the Federal Land Management Policy Act of 1976 because it failed to protect all the species within the monument. The bureau argued that the plan was provisional and it would make more involved decisions when it actually authorized grazing, so the plaintiffs lacked standing — to which Bolton agreed.
She also said that the court should not get involved in future actions by the administration, which means the bureau’s decisions at the implementation level.
Bolton rejected the plaintiffs’ National Historic Preservation Act claim as well, saying that the bureau did a good job of analyzing how cultural and historic sites on the monument would be affected.
Because the bureau’s environmental assessment had problems, Bolton did not decide if it should have done an environmental impact statement, which is something that depends on what is in the environmental assessment.
Cover photo courtesy of: Jimmy Emerson