A Cache Valley environmental group has come out of hibernation, you might say, to fight for the survival of grizzly bears and other endangered wildlife in the region.
On Tuesday, the Mendon-based Yellowstone to Unitas Connection joined two legal battles waged by multiple conservation organizations against recent government decisions they say threaten wildlife. One of the decisions allows continued cattle grazing in the Bridger-Teton National Forest, which the groups contend will result in serious depletion of the region’s grizzly population, while the other decision gave the go-ahead for construction of a natural gas pipeline in Southeastern Idaho that the groups argue is in violation of the Endangered Species Act.
Jason Christensen, director of the local conservation group nicknamed Y2U, said he knows environmentalists get a rap for being litigious, and he usually steers clear of lawsuits for that very reason, but frustration over dealing with federal agencies under the Trump administration has pushed him across the line.
“I really have tried damn hard not to (get in court fights),” he said. “I go through the whole process and try not to litigate all the time. But quite frankly this administration is allowing or causing — I’m not sure which — its agencies to get more and more brazen with ignoring the public input. They’ve been empowered to basically ignore us.”
The agencies Christensen is referring to in this instance are the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, both of which were named in Tuesday’s 60-day notices of intent to sue over the grazing and pipeline decisions.
The grazing issue came to a head with an October 2019 decision to renew livestock permits on 170,647 acres of public land in a section of the Bridger-Teton National Forest south of Yellowstone National Park. Joining Y2U in serving notice of a lawsuit were the Alliance for the Wild Rockies and the Western Watershed Project.
Among other things, the groups argue the grazing allotment poses a significant threat to the region’s grizzly population — first, because ranchers have been allowed to shoot and kill the bears when they are seen near livestock (up to 72 killings in the past year), and second, because the allotments block a vital corridor for movement of wildlife.
“Over a decade ago, the Forest Service published a map outlining the higher elevation connections between the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, the Uinta Mountains and the Northern and Southern Rockies,” Christensen wrote in Tuesday’s filing. “Historically, grizzly bears, lynx, and wolverine have all utilized these important travel routes, which were designated as a Regional and Nationally Significant Wildlife Corridor. Now, however, it’s heavily fragmented with roads, timber sales, oil and gas development and livestock grazing while off-road vehicles push ever further into what used to be secure grizzly habitat. Yet, astoundingly, these issues were not seriously considered in the Environmental Impact Statement.”
The Forest Service, however, has said it did weigh all potential impacts in making its decision and arrived at the best compromise possible. In an official statement posted on the website of the Bridger-Teton National Forest, District Ranger Rob Hoelscher is quoted saying the permit renewal contains ample conditions for maintaining wildlife habitat and environmental health.
“In making the final decision, Hoelscher considered the environmental analysis, public comment, consultation with cooperators and federal agencies, as well as discussions from pre-decisional administrative review or objection processes,” the statement says. “Crafting this decision was not easy. On the one hand, some want hard and fast direction and consequences. Permittees on the other hand desire flexibility for their operations. … This decision does a bit of both while meeting the requirements of our land management plan.”
The pipeline issue revolves around similar arguments, with environmentalists contending the project is an outright violation of the Endangered Species Act since several listed species — including grizzlies, one type of bird and two varieties of plants — could be affected.
Proposed by Lower Valley Energy and approved by the Forest Service in November, what’s called the Crow Creek Pipeline will transport natural gas roughly 48 miles between Afton, Wyoming, and Montpelier, Idaho, crossing 18 miles of the Caribou-Targhee National Forest.
“The pipeline utility corridor will be, in actual effect, a permanent 18.2-mile road through National Forest lands despite the fact that these public lands have been classified and protected as federal Inventoried Roadless Areas under the Clinton-era Roadless Rule,” wrote Mike Garrity of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies.
In discussing the potential lawsuits with The Herald Journal this week, Christensen noted repeatedly that his preference is to work within the processes set down by government agencies to mitigate environmental impacts
“These are the first two lawsuits I’ve had in all the years I’ve been director (of Y2U),” he said. “It’s unfortunate it’s coming to this, but it sure is.”
Christensen started the Yellowstone to Uinta Connection in 2012 with a group of Cache Valley residents including his foster father, longtime local environmental activist John Carter. The organization is a spinoff of the Bear River Watershed Council, also based in Cache Valley, which advocated for environmental causes in the region for a decade and a half before being disbanded in 2016.
Christensen said Carter, now 79 years old, has spent the last decade living “off the grid” with his dogs on a 824-acre conservation easement created by Y2U in Paris Canyon, Idaho. The property, dubbed Kiesha’s Preserve, is explained on the website kieshaspreserve.org.