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9th Circuit rejects arguments against farming in Klamath wildlife refuges

Wetlands in Klamath Basin< Standing grain is left for migrating birds in the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has rejected several lawsuits over farming in the refuge complex.

A federal appeals court has rejected claims that irrigation, pesticides and grazing in several Klamath Basin national wildlife refuges are managed in violation of environmental laws.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has also dismissed arguments by farm representatives that agriculture is too strictly regulated in the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex.

Last year, a federal judge threw out multiple lawsuits filed in 2017 against a “comprehensive conservation plan” for five refuges within the complex, which straddles the Oregon-California border.

A unanimous panel of three 9th Circuit judges has now upheld that decision, ruling that the Fish and Wildlife Service’s plan complies with all the laws governing the 200,000-acre refuge complex.

“Given the extensive evidence in the record supporting the choices made by the Service, the panel saw nothing that authorized us, as the reviewing court, to make different choices,” the 9th Circuit said.

More than 20,000 acres in two of the refuges are leased for crop cultivation, which environmental advocates complained is prioritized over wildlife habitat.

The 9th Circuit has disagreed with that argument, ruling that the Fish and Wildlife Service’s plan struck the appropriate balance between agriculture and wildfowl management as required by refuge management statutes.

Environmental advocates also claimed the federal government violated the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to consider scaling back agricultural leases on refuge lands.

However, the agency properly explained that it didn’t consider this option because farming helps waterfowl populations by providing them with food, the 9th Circuit said.

Also, reducing farmed acreage in the refuges would not make more water available for wetlands, since it would instead go to more senior irrigators elsewhere, the ruling said.

In developing the management plan, the Fish and Wildlife Service was “constrained by a complex system of water rights that is largely beyond its control,” the 9th Circuit said.

The government’s rules for pesticide spraying also came under fire from environmental advocates, who claimed the government should have evaluated heightened chemical restrictions.

The 9th Circuit has found that argument “unavailing,” since the Fish and Wildlife Service reasonably decided that further restricting pesticide usage wasn’t feasible, the 9th Circuit said.

“FWS adequately explained that some amount of pesticide use was necessary on the Refuges to ensure sufficient crop production, on which Refuge waterfowl now depend,” the ruling said.

Similarly, the government didn’t have to evaluate livestock curtailments in one of the refuges, since it considers grazing necessary to control weed species and promote sage grouse habitat, the 9th Circuit said.

“Overall, FWS concluded that the negative effects of the limited, managed grazing program on sage-grouse were outweighed by the positive effects of the program,” the ruling said.

While most objections to the refuge management plan centered on environmental concerns, restrictions on crop production were also challenged by several farms and agricultural organizations.

These plaintiffs claimed the management plan violated federal laws by increasing the acreage devoted to wetlands and unharvested grain, among other requirements.

The 9th Circuit disagreed that farming is “automatically consistent” with proper waterfowl management and thus limits on agriculture are unauthorized.

Federal refuge management statutes “unambiguously prioritize” wildlife over agriculture, which must be consistent with waterfowl objectives, the ruling said.




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