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Environmentalists and farmers lose lawsuits over Klamath refuges

Multiple environmental lawsuits over the management of five national wildlife refuges in the Klamath Basin have failed, but so has a complaint filed by agricultural groups.

A federal judge has rejected challenges filed in 2017 against livestock grazing, pesticide usage and water management within the 200,000-acre Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex.

U.S. District Judge Michael McShane has also dismissed claims filed by farms and irrigation organizations, which argued that a comprehensive conservation plan had impermissibly restricted agricultural leases of refuge land.

The ruling has adopted the earlier findings and recommendations of U.S. Magistrate Judge Mark Clarke, who determined the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service should prevail against all claims it had violated federal statutes governing the refuge complex.

The Tulelake Irrigation District and five other agricultural plaintiffs lacked legal standing to challenge the conservation plan under the National Environmental Policy Act, he said.

Claims of economic harm to farmers fell outside the “zone of interests” of NEPA, he said.

Farm groups complained that new permits with “compatibility” determinations will complicate refuge leases by requiring increased field flooding, tillage limitations and hazing prohibitions.

The agricultural plaintiffs argued these burdens would threaten the viability of farming and interfere with a federal law governing leases of refuge lands.

Regardless of their lack of standing, the agricultural plaintiffs also failed to prove the Fish and Wildlife Service didn’t take a “hard look” at the conservation plan’s consequences, as required by NEPA, according to the judge.

The agency didn’t have to analyze the impacts of refuge lease lands being abandoned and fallowed, since this was “a remote and highly speculative possibility,” the ruling said.

The Fish and Wildlife Service also “reasonably concluded” that conditions needed to benefit waterfowl trump agricultural considerations under two federal statutes that govern the complex, the Refuge Act and the Kuchel Act, the judge determined.

“If the Service determines that an agricultural use is not consistent with proper waterfowl management, the Service must be allowed to restrict the agricultural use,” he said.

On the environmental side of the legal dispute, the Audubon Society of Portland claimed the Fish and Wildlife Service didn’t ensure the refuges receive adequate water.

However, the judge said the agency “does not have the authority to change the Refuges’ junior priority water rights within the Klamath Basin.”

The ruling also determined the federal agency hadn’t violated the Clean Water Act because it complied with non-point source discharge regulations, among other findings.

Livestock grazing in the 33,400-acre Clear Lake Refuge was challenged by the Western Watersheds Project, which claimed the federal government hadn’t sufficiently explored curtailments and alternatives to the practice.

The judge said the Fish and Wildlife Service “reasonably found” that reducing or banning grazing wouldn’t be consistent with its policy goals, such as controlling the spread of juniper.

The federal government also took the required “hard look” at grazing’s environmental impacts under NEPA, including its cumulative effects on the sage grouse and sucker fish species, the ruling said.

As for the Center for Biological Diversity’s arguments against pesticide usage, the judge said the federal government’s “scientific judgment” on the matter deserves deference.

“It reasonably concluded that eliminating or substantially reducing the use of pesticides would result in an irretrievable loss of forage for birds on the refuges,” he said.



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