Trump’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) raised the white flag of surrender and pulled its decision to allow grazing on 5,566 acres in Indian Creek of the Elkhorn Wildlife Management area on December 10 after the Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Native Ecosystem Council threatened to challenge the project in federal court.
The story is long, but it starts in 2018 when the two conservation groups took the BLM to court to stop its plan to burn sagebrush-juniper habitat in the Iron Mask area of the Elkhorn Mountains southwest of Townsend, Montana.
The 300,000 acre Elkhorn Mountains are not only highly prized for their wildlife habitat, they are officially-designated to prioritize benefits to wildlife above all other uses in all management decisions. Each year more than 7,000 hunters put in for the 110 coveted Elkhorn elk tags, making the odds of drawing a permit to hunt their famous trophy bull elk extremely slim.
Our suit was successful and in 2019, a federal judge halted the project and issued an order requiring the BLM to analyze the cumulative impacts of the project on wildlife before it could proceed with the project.
The BLM, however, chose not to comply with the 2019 Court Order and instead issued a “Supplemental Environmental Assessment” that failed to analyze the project’s cumulative impacts on wildlife. So we filed suit again in February 2020 asking the Court to stop the BLM from illegally burning sagebrush and juniper. United States Magistrate Judge Timothy Cavan ruled in our favor.
During the 2020 litigation, however, the BLM released a second decision authorizing cattle grazing on 5,000 acres of the Iron Mask area which obviously benefitted cows, not wildlife as required by law.
Since this Decision was based on the illegal Supplemental Environmental Assessment — and since livestock grazing has been shown to negatively impact big game species like elk by displacing herds and decreasing available forage — we threatened to file a third lawsuit.
We believe we would have won since judges are not particularly fond of government agencies that ignore their Court Orders. Apparently, the BLM came to the same conclusion and the agency voluntarily withdrew the grazing decision.
The Iron Mask Project is simply the latest attempt by the BLM to benefit cattle despite the fact that doing so will harm wildlife in the Elkhorn Mountains. Even worse, the Iron Mask area was recently acquired by the BLM with federal funds that are specifically to be used to purchase habitat for wildlife.
We’d like to say our court challenges resolved all the issues, but unfortunately, that’s not the case. The BLM already installed barbed wire fences for the cows and refuses to remove them. We, therefore, asked the court to order the BLM to remove the fences due to the damage they cause to wildlife, which has been well documented by Montana’s Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks.
Mike Garrity is the Executive Director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies