The Alvord Desert east of Steens Mountain. (Photo by Bureau of Land Management via Flickr)

This spring, the federal Bureau of Land Management was ready to approve a long-term permit for livestock grazing on 200,000 acres of public land in the Alvord Desert in southeast Oregon for the first time in 57 years. 

Then conservationists found out.

Western Watersheds, WildLands Defense and Wild Horse Education, three nonprofit conservation groups, challenged the 10-year plan. An attorney for the Bureau of Land Management reviewed the groups’ concerns and decided that an earlier decision allowing the permit needed to be “remanded and vacated,” in essence, deciding it needs further review. On Wednesday, a judge at the Interior Department agreed, officially halting the permit for now. 

“This is a huge win for the Alvord,” said Adam Bronstein, Western Watersheds’ director of operations for Oregon and Nevada. “This is an area that has not seen that many cows in a long time.” 

In 1965, the bureau suspended grazing on the allotment to improve vegetation for mule deer that rely on the land in the winter. It temporarily allowed livestock grazing there just 18 times over the past 49 years. This was to manage vegetation and reduce wildfire risks, according to Tara Thissell, public affairs specialist for the bureau’s Burn’s district office.

Since the late 1960s, several large reservoirs and a few wells and pipelines were developed to increase water supplies to the allotment, but the bureau didn’t revisit adding more animals until now, Thissell said over email. 

“The suspension was implemented with the understanding that (livestock grazing) would later be analyzed for reinstatement,” she wrote. 

Conservation groups fighting the permit expressed concerns that allowing permanent grazing would stress the limited vegetation, compromise the area’s recreational value, harm locations sacred to the Burns-Paiute Tribe and allow cattle to access streams that contain threatened Lahontan cutthroat trout, which are currently protected under the Endangered Species Act. 

“This wide swath of desert that’s been undegraded for years would all the sudden have cows moving over it, destroying what sparse vegetation is out there,” Bronstein said. 

The groups were also concerned over the bureau’s plans to drill seven wells to sustain livestock in an area under extreme drought conditions.

“This place is so dry, and now you’re going to allow animals that need water every two to three miles across it?” he said.

Western Watersheds appealed BLM’s permitting decision to the Office of Hearings and Appeals, an administrative law court within the Department of the Interior.

An attorney for the bureau, Carmen Thomas Morse, acknowledged the groups’ concerns, including over the health of the threatened trout. An Interior Department judge agreed the permit should be sent back to the bureau for further review.

“We determined that the appellant provided some substantive comments,” Jeanne Panfely, head of social media for the BLM’s Oregon and Washington state operations, said in an email. “While we were disappointed that these comments were not provided earlier in the process, we believe public input is both important and beneficial.” Bronstein said Western Watersheds submitted their concerns during the public comment period and then later to protest the permit. 

Penfely said the bureau will adjust its environmental assessment and open an additional public comment period before it issues any new decision on allowing grazing. 

Bronstein said the BLM and Interior Department rarely overturns a permit and sends it back for review. 

“This holds the line. It doesn’t make things worse, and that is a win now,” he said. 

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Alex Baumhardt has been a national radio producer focusing on education for American Public Media since 2017. She has reported from the Arctic to the Antarctic for national and international media, and from Minnesota and Oregon for The Washington Post. She previously worked in Iceland and Qatar and was a Fulbright scholar in Spain where she earned a master's degree in digital media. She's been a kayaking guide in Alaska, farmed on four continents and worked the night shift at several bakeries to support her reporting along the way.