Steelhead trout in the John Day River can expect to see improved habitat conditions after over a hundred years of habitat degradation caused by cattle grazing in eastern Oregon’s streams.
The improvement is the direct result of a federal judge’s order this week closing out a decade-long series of cases, filed in 2003 by the Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), Center for Biological Diversity, and Western Watersheds Project, challenging Forest Service management of public lands along the John Day River in eastern Oregon. It follows District Judge Ancer Haggerty’s June 2010 ruling that the Forest Service’s grazing plan violated the Endangered Species Act and National Forest Management Act along more than 300 miles of steelhead streams in the John Day River Basin. Before that the groups had won injunctions barring cattle from grazing along 91 miles of steelhead streams in 2008 and imposing tight restrictions on grazing on 228 miles of streams in 2009, 2010 and 2011 through a series of additional injunctions and stipulated agreements among the parties.
“This case makes clear that agencies must make steelhead protection their highest priority on our public lands,” said Brent Fenty, ONDA’s executive director. “The new requirements for specific periods of rest and renewed scientific analysis when cattle cause damage to steelhead habitat are unprecedented and will benefit native steelhead for generations to come.”
In his benchmark ruling in 2010, Judge Haggerty noted that grazing has harmed steelhead by damaging the streams on which they depend. The Forest Service’s grazing program had damaged stream banks much more severely than is allowed under federal ecological standards designed to conserve steelhead.
In addition to halting some of the most destructive grazing during the case, the court also ordered the Forest Service to comply with its steelhead habitat monitoring obligations under the Malheur Forest Plan before resuming grazing, and ordered the National Marine Fisheries Service to complete a new biological opinion in order to impose better standards to protect the key elements of healthy fish streams: stable stream banks and overhanging vegetation that keep streams clear and cold. The agency completed the new opinion in April 2012.
“This case insured that the Forest Service must give up its business-as-usual grazing management,” said Jon Marvel, executive director of Western Watersheds Project. “Grazing on hundreds of miles of important fish streams can only proceed today if the Forest Service and NMFS can guarantee that grazing will not harm steelhead.”
In the places where the court’s orders prevented grazing beginning in 2008, monitoring showed that even a single year of rest allowed for significant initial recovery of riparian plant communities, stream channels and fish habitat.
“This is probably the most relief that these steelhead and streams have had from livestock impacts since cows first were introduced into these watersheds in the 19th century,” said Jonathan Rhodes, a professional hydrologist who studies these stream systems and who testified in the case.
The Malheur National Forest is located in eastern Oregon’s Blue Mountains. It includes portions of the Upper John Day, Middle Fork John Day, North Fork John Day and Malheur rivers. The 281-mile-long John Day River is the second longest undammed river in the continental United States. The river and its hundreds of miles of tributary streams in the Malheur National Forest provide spawning, rearing and migratory habitat for the largest naturally spawning, native stock of wild steelhead remaining in the Columbia River basin.
“This is a tremendous victory for steelhead and dozens of other species that depend on the health of these streams,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Getting cows off these streams will also benefit people who live and recreate in the John Day basin, ensuring more fish and cleaner water.
The groups are represented by Portland-based attorney Dave Becker (Law Office of David H. Becker, LLC), who took over the case in 2008, going on to win two preliminary injunctions, a merits decision and permanent relief in the case, as well as co-counsel Mac Lacy (ONDA) and Kristin Ruether (Advocates for the West).