Lower imnaha rangeland analysis f.a.q.

On January 10, 2018, we filed suit against the U.S. Forest Service over its failure to meet its duties to protect and recover threatened Spalding’s catchfly in the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area. Read the press release here, or search below for in depth answers to questions about the issue.

2. What makes the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area so special?

Congress created the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area in 1975 to preserve the recreational and ecological values of Hells Canyon, its tributaries, and adjacent lands, preserving them for present and future generations. Hells Canyon National Recreation Area encompasses the deepest river canyon in North America. Its steep river canyons and native bunchgrass communities are home to several rare and threatened plants, such as Spalding’s catchfly and MacFarlane’s four-o’clock.

This area’s management plan is as special as its ecological features. It is not supposed to be managed like other National Forest lands. The statute creating the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area states its management must be compatible with the preservation of “all features and peculiarities believed to be biologically unique including, but not limited to, rare and endemic plant species, rare combinations of aquatic, terrestrial, and atmospheric habitats, and the rare combinations of outstanding and diverse ecosystems.” (HCNRA Act Sec. 7(3).) It specifically states that grazing must be compatible with this provision. (HCNRA Act Sec. 7(7), Sec. 7(4).)

This place is special. As such, the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area Act directed the Forest Service to create a unique “Comprehensive Management Plan” to ensure it is managed in a way that acknowledges and enhances its unique qualities. The management plan for Hells Canyon directs the Forest Service to, among other things:

  • Monitor population trends and habitat conditions for federally listed plant species (plants that are or could be headed toward extinction)

  • Manage habitat to ensure continued existence of viable populations of rare and endemic plant species

  • Implement recovery plans for federally listed plant species

  • Implement restoration and recovery activities to help get species off the list of federal threatened and endangered species

  • Mitigate potential conflicts or modify proposed projects to ensure the protection of rare plants and their associated habitat

  • Consider modifying activities, such as domestic livestock grazing, where conflicts with the protection of rare plant species are identified. (HCNRA Comprehensive Management Plan, C-88 through C-91.)

In short, the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area has special management rules. Grazing should only continue if it doesn’t threaten the area’s unique ecological features, including rare, threatened, and endemic plant populations.​

3. Why does Greater Hells Canyon Council care so much about this place?

The Lower Imnaha Rangeland Analysis occurred in the heart of our mission area. Greater Hells Canyon Council was initially formed to protect Hells Canyon from dam building. We were instrumental in Congress recognizing that the area deserves special protection through the establishment of the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area and the Hells Canyon Wilderness in 1975. We also worked diligently with the Forest Service and a wide variety of stakeholders to develop the Comprehensive Management Plan for the area. We are passionate about protecting its unique values.

So much of our organization’s early work focused on protecting Hells Canyon and the plants and animals who call it home. Its management must reflect its unique values.

4. What is Spalding’s catchfly?

Silene spaldingii or Spalding’s catchfly is an herbaceous perennial plant in the pink or carnation family (Caryophyllaceae). The plant produces many stems and shoots from a thick taproot at least 3 feet long. This long taproot enables the plant to go dormant and remain underground for 1-3 years. Its stems and cup-like flowers are covered in dense sticky hairs that trap insects, hence the name “catchfly.” Some believe the plant is carnivorous and that these insects are nutrients.

Spalding’s catchfly is both a federally listed threatened species and a rare and endemic plant species within the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area. It is found only in the bunchgrass and sagebrush-steppe communities of eastern Washington, northeastern Oregon, west-central Idaho, and western Montana, with a small sliver of its historic range also extending into British Columbia, Canada.

With the widespread conversion of native grasslands to agricultural lands, much of its habitat has been lost. Urban development, livestock and native ungulate grazing and trampling, herbicide treatment, and competition from non-native plants have all contributed to this species’ decline. Today, distribution of Spalding’s catchfly has been reduced to patchy, geographically isolated, and fragmented populations. More than half of the known catchfly populations occur on private land, where they are not protected from development.

Currently, Wallowa County is the only place in Oregon where Spalding’s catchfly is known to occur. The approximately 20 populations known within Wallowa County vary significantly in size; many of the populations are small, sometimes even just a few plants.

There is no data on population trends or the historic occurrence of Spalding’s catchfly for any of the Lower Imnaha Rangeland Analysis (LIRA) allotments. Currently, the LIRA population consist of 66 known “vulnerably small patches” spread far apart over thousands of acres. (LIRA Plant Biological Assessment, at 38, 41, 45.) There are only 948 individual known plants in the LIRA allotments.

Spalding’s catchfly is under threat of extinction. Today, this plant is primarily found in vulnerably small and genetically isolated populations scattered throughout a fraction of its historic range.

5. How does grazing affect Spalding’s catchfly?

The greatest threat to Spalding’s catchfly in the grasslands of Hell Canyon is habitat degradation from the impacts of livestock grazing and weed invasion. While non-native invasive plants are already a problem in the Lower Imnaha Rangeland Analysis (LIRA) allotments, livestock grazing spreads even more of these weeds (LIRA Plant Biological Assessment, 71), which then outcompete and displace the catchfly from its habitat. The Forest Service’s analysis states that many Spalding’s catchfly sites within LIRA are “clearly threatened by the spread of noxious weeds.” (LIRA Plant Biological Assessment, 71.)

Livestock trampling destroys seedlings and breaks taproots, killing the plants. Cattle trampling is of particular concern in these allotments due to the moist, steep, north-facing canyon slopes. (LIRA Final EIS, 187.) These slopes have the deep loess soils where the catchfly can thrive. However, these steep slopes are unstable and highly susceptible to soil displacement by heavy cattle, particularly during late winter and early spring, when soils are the wettest and least firm. (LIRA Final EIS, 201; LIRA Biological Evaluation for TES Plants, 58.) The Forest Service’s LIRA decision allows cattle to graze in pastures with steep slopes, where Spalding’s catchfly sites are typically found, during the times these areas are most vulnerable to disturbance.

Grazing also threatens the nests of ground dwelling pollinators, which are necessary for the long-term survival of the plant. According to the Forest Service’s analysis, livestock grazing can negatively affect native ground dwelling bumblebees, the primary pollinators for Spalding’s catchfly. (Plant Biological Assessment, 48, 71; LIRA Final EIS, 201.) Cattle are heavy--even just walking around compacts the soil and degrades the bees’ habitat. Spalding’s catchfly requires insect pollination to set viable seed; the plants rely on these pollinators for genetic diversity.

The Forest Service acknowledges impacts of livestock trampling are worse and more clearly seen in the steep terrain of Hells Canyon than along gentler terrain, such as the Zumwalt Prairie, where other catchfly populations in Wallowa County are found. (LIRA Final EIS, 190; LIRA Biological Evaluation for TES Plants, 31.)

The impacts of cattle are detrimental to Spalding’s catchfly in many ways: they spread invasive weeds that compete for habitat, can trample and eat the plants, displace soil, and destroy the habitat of ground-dwelling native pollinators. Furthermore, the cattle are on these allotments during late winter/spring, when the soil is moist and most vulnerable to disturbance and when the catchfly begins its seedling germination and growth cycles.

6. How does LIRA relate to the recovery plan for Spalding's catchfly?

Under the Endangered Species Act, when a plant or animal is listed as threatened or endangered, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service creates a recovery plan to restore its habitat and safeguard its future existence. Because each species’ needs are different, every recovery plan is unique. The goal is for a species to recover to the point it can be removed from the list of threatened and endangered species.

Recovery plans are not regulatory, and success can often depend on the willingness of private landowners to participate. However, the Comprehensive Management Plan for Hells Canyon requires the Forest Service to implement recovery plans in the National Recreation Area. They need to at least try to get these species recovered and delisted.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service finalized the Spalding’s catchfly recovery plan in 2007. For catchfly to be considered recovered and delisted, a certain number of large stable populations (requiring a minimum of 500 reproducing individual plants) must exist throughout the species’ historic range with suitable habitat identified at several “key conservation areas.” To qualify as a key conservation area, catchfly populations cannot be in places threatened by future development--they need to be on protected lands. The LIRA area Spalding’s catchfly population of 948 individual plants may qualify as a key conservation area. This area could help meet the goals of the catchfly’s recovery plan and lead to its delisting!

A species’ recovery plan also provides a framework for how to implement the Endangered Species Act in specific management decisions. When the Forest Service proposes an action that could affect a threatened species, they have to make sure what they’re proposing doesn’t jeopardize that species’ continued survival or recovery. This is determined in part through consultation with appropriate agencies. The Forest Service’s consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on LIRA resulted in a Biological Opinion stating reauthorizing cattle grazing would likely adversely affect Spalding’s catchfly and habitat. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service then provided several conservation recommendations to potentially mitigate some of these adverse effects. The Forest Service chose not to adopt any of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s recommendations.

The Forest Service is required to participate in the recovery of Spalding’s catchfly in Hells Canyon. By reauthorizing grazing in the LIRA allotments, they ignored the plant’s recovery plan, and will likely only further damage the plant and its habitat.

7. What did the Forest Service do wrong?

The Forest Service conducted the Lower Imnaha Rangeland Analysis (LIRA) to evaluate the effects of reauthorizing grazing in this part of Hells Canyon. The little data the Forest Service collected in LIRA clearly demonstrates cattle grazing in these allotments have a damaging effect on Spalding’s catchfly and its habitat. That they reauthorized grazing with little meaningful change fails to ensure the protection and recovery of this federally listed threatened plant species, and in turn violates mandates of the canyon’s special management plan.

The Forest Service looked at these pastures, found damaged conditions, and chose not to fix them.

8. Why are you suing?

Although we worked diligently through the public engagement process, we were unable to resolve our objections. We proposed many alternatives that would keep grazing in the canyon in line with the area’s special management plan, such as putting pastures with Spalding's catchfly into resource protection until habitat conditions improve. This is how the neighboring Umatilla National Forest has decided to manage their grazing allotments with catchfly populations. This suggestion was rejected by the Forest Service.

Ultimately, we offered to drop our objection if the Forest Service would simply agree to follow the mitigation conditions recommended by their own resource specialists and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Such recommendations included: herding the cattle into areas less prone to soil shearing and displacement; monitoring the soil each year; tying soil moisture to the dates cattle are allowed in and taken out of the allotments; and, conducting catchfly surveys on un-surveyed allotments within LIRA. (See e.g LIRA Biological Opinion, April 10, 2015 pp. 57-58; LIRA Draft Soil Report.) Unfortunately, the Forest Service decided to ignore their own experts. Why is anyone’s guess.

We’re suing the Forest Service to protect a plant threatened by extinction. If the Forest Service is allowed to ignore the mandates of Hells Canyon’s special management plan to protect rare and threatened plants now, how can we ensure this place will be managed properly in the future?

9. What would a win for Spalding’s catchfly look like?

The Forest Service would manage the species’ habitat and its populations to ensure its continued existence, viability, and recovery within the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area. The ultimate goal is for Spalding’s catchfly populations to be robust enough to be delisted.

10. How does this affect the permittees in the LIRA planning area?

This is a challenge to how the Forest Service manages the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area and Hells Canyon Wilderness, not against any individual permittee. We are not seeking a ruling that dictates specific management changes. Rather, we are asking the Court to direct the Forest Service to meet its duty to recover catchfly within the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area. It will be up to the Forest Service to come up with a modified management plan that ensures compliance with the provisions in the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area management plan.

Greater Hells Canyon Council is not asking for any modifications to occur to current grazing in the Lower Imnaha Rangeland Analysis (LIRA) area while the case is pending, so grazing would be allowed to continue this winter as planned. There would be no modification to grazing activity in the LIRA planning area until there is a ruling from the court.

12. Do you just oppose ranching?

No. Cattle ranching is an important part of the local culture and economy. However, when grazing is permitted on public lands, it must not be at the expense of threatened or endangered plant species.

The Wallowa-Whitman National Forest has the largest livestock grazing program--the highest number of animals--of any National Forest in Oregon and Washington. Livestock currently graze more than half of its 2.3 million acres. The LIRA area is only a small portion of this total acreage, and we are concerned with only a small portion of the LIRA area. Though it is a small area, a change in management here could have a meaningful positive impact on recovery of Spalding’s catchfly.

This lawsuit seeks relatively small, but meaningful, changes to protect and restore the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area as a place recognized for its biologically unique, rare, and endemic plant communities.

13. Are you going to get rich?

No. Going to court is expensive. It is not fun. It is a last resort option. If we win our legal challenge, the Forest Service may be required to pay our hired public interest attorneys’ reasonable fees. Win or lose, our organization will not “get rich” by filing this legal challenge.

Photos of trailing/terracing and Spalding's catchfly acquired from the Forest Service through the Freedom of Information Act. More photos of the LIRA allotments can be found here.

1. What is the Lower Imnaha Rangeland Analysis (LIRA)?

The Lower Imnaha Rangeland Analysis (LIRA) covers approximately 44,000 acres of canyon country between the Imnaha and Snake rivers. It was the first analysis to look at the environmental impacts of livestock grazing in this area. This analysis assessed reauthorizing livestock grazing on four allotments--Cow Creek, Toomey, Rhodes Creek, and Lone Pine--all within the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area. Thirty-eight percent (over 16,000 acres) of these allotments fall within the Hells Canyon Wilderness. Because the canyon experiences relatively mild winter weather, these allotments are grazed November through May.

The Forest Service’s final decision approved livestock grazing at the same stocking levels and annual season of use as permitted before LIRA, and re-opened grazing on the Lone Pine allotment to a new permittee. Lone Pine had not been grazed for nearly 10 years, and is located mostly in the Wilderness.

While grazing in this area has been ongoing for over a century, this analysis was the first time the Forest Service assessed whether grazing levels and strategies (such as when and where cattle graze based on soil conditions and weather, etc.) complied with applicable laws and regulations.

The Lower Imnaha Rangeland Analysis looked at how (or if) grazing should be reauthorized in four Hells Canyon allotments. After all their analysis, the Forest Service made little substantive change to these grazing permits and, in effect, added more grazing in the Wilderness. It is unlikely they will reassess grazing management on these lower Imnaha allotments for decades.