Our nation is in a perilous place when federal agencies refuse to comply with federal court orders. Yet, that’s just what Donald Trump’s Bureau of Land Management did in its rush to destroy sagebrush, juniper and limber pine habitat in the Iron Mask area of Montana’s federally designated Elkhorn Wildlife Management Area. I’m glad to announce the federal district court recently issued a preliminary injunction to immediately stop the rogue agency.
The 300,000 acre Elkhorn Mountains in southwest Montana are designated to be managed to prioritize benefits to wildlife above all other uses. Yet the Iron Mask Project, which is in the Elkhorn Area of Critical Environmental Concern, authorizes cutting and burning sagebrush, juniper trees and limber pine on 5,397 acres to benefit a few local cattle ranchers, not the area’s abundant and highly prized wildlife.
In March 2018, the Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Native Ecosystem Council sued to stop the BLM’s plan. One year later, a federal judge, Susan Watters, ordered the project halted because the agency failed to analyze the cumulative impacts of the project on wildlife.
However, when the BLM issued the Supplemental Environmental Analysis required by the court, it ignored the mandate to analyze the impacts of the project on all wildlife. So we filed another lawsuit against the agency this February and a motion for a preliminary injunction to halt the project in March.
The magistrate judge agreed with us and wrote in his recommendation: “The Court finds that it is in the public’s interest for BLM to fulfill its mandate under NEPA before proceeding further with treatments in the Iron Mask. Without the requisite analysis, the public interest falls squarely on the Plaintiffs’ side.” Judge Watters issued an injunction stopping the project on July 24.
Why it matters
Juniper trees produce up to 20,000 berries provide high-energy food for big game species as well as migratory birds, wild turkeys and upland game birds throughout fall and winter regardless of deep snow.
Junipers in the Intermountain West also provide breeding habitat for at least 43 species of birds including many that have been identified by Montana as species of concern. These include the lark sparrow, loggerhead shrike, pinyon jay, Cassin’s finch, Clark’s nutcracker, ferruginous hawk, golden eagle and northern goshawk.
The BLM didn’t even analyze the impacts on pinyon jays, one of the fastest declining bird populations in North America that depend on dense forests of juniper for colonial nesting and feed on the seeds of the limber pine trees slated for burning.
That’s particularly troublesome when you consider the number of birds in the United States and Canada has declined by 3 billion, or 29 percent, over the past half-century, mostly due to loss of habitat and increased use of pesticides.
Under President Trump’s highly criticized leadership and that of the corporate lobbyists he appointed to run federal agencies like the BLM, the federal government is trying to manage the Elkhorns to benefit a few cattle ranchers while ignoring a federal court mandate to analyze the damage their project will have on bird habitat. Simply put, it makes no sense for the BLM to destroy even more native habitat to grow grass for cows. Montana has millions of cows — but this is the Elkhorn Wildlife Management Area, not the Elkhorn Cattle Management Area.
We shouldn’t have to sue the Trump administration to force them to comply with the legal mandate of a federal court’s order. But apparently that’s what it takes when we have a president who thinks the laws and Constitution don’t apply to him or his public land management agencies.
Mike Garrity is the executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies.