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Appeals court rules against Wyoming ranchers

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP)--A federal appeals court in Denver has ruled that a group of Wyoming ranchers had no right to formal hearings before the U.S. Bureau of Land Management reduced their livestock grazing under federal permits.

Ranchers with the Smithsfork Grazing Association had sued the BLM and various government officials. The lawsuit challenged the federal agency's 2005 order to reduce grazing on the 91,000-acre Smithsfork Allotment located north and east of Cokeville, in southwestern Wyoming.

A three-judge panel of the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver on May 5 upheld a Wyoming judge's earlier decision that ruled against the ranchers.

Several lawyers with the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington represented the BLM. Carol A. Statkus, assistant U.S. Attorney for the District of Wyoming also worked on the case. John Powell, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Wyoming, said May 5 that Statkus had no comment.

Karen Budd-Falen, a Cheyenne lawyer, represented the grazing association. She did not immediately return a phone message seeking comment on the ruling on May 5.

Jonathan Ratner, director of the Wyoming office of the Western Watersheds Project in Pinedale, said May 5 that his group has been following the dispute and is happy with the appeals court's ruling.

Ratner said there have been some improvements on the allotment since the BLM reduced grazing in the area. However, he said grazing is still causing major problems with streams in the area that support Bonneville cutthroat trout, a species that the BLM has listed as sensitive.

Ratner said he expects the issue of reducing grazing on the Smithsfork Allotment will now proceed to a federal hearing process. He said his group will continue to be involved in that.

"We'll be keeping a very careful eye on this whole process, because the Smithsfork area is one of the last few Bonneville trout populations left in Wyoming, and the BLM is doing really a stunningly poor job of protecting this species."

An attempt to reach John Christensen, field manager at the BLM's office in Kemmerer, on May 5 was unsuccessful.

The New Mexico Cattle Growers' Association and New Mexico Federal Lands Council entered an appearance in the lawsuit and filed "friend of the court" briefs supporting the Smithsfork Grazing Association's position.

Caren Cowan, executive director of the New Mexico Cattle Growers' Association, said May 5 that her group is deeply concerned with the appeals court decision and needs to review it further.

"We got involved because it had to do with the ability to administratively appeal decisions for grazing allotment owners," Cowan said. "That's a universal issue, whether you're in Wyoming, New Mexico or what state you're in.

"Allotment owners need to have the ability to appeal decisions, and feel like they have fairness as they're working with the agency," Cowan said.

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