Western Watersheds Project responds to lawsuit from ranchers group

(Jackson, Wyo.) – The Western Watersheds Project has released a statement in response to a lawsuit filed against it by a collection of ranchers, including some from Fremont County. The complete statement is below.

Last month Western Watersheds Project was sued by a group of Wyoming ranchers who alleged the group trespassed in order to collect samples of poor quality water from streams within public grazing allotments on federal land.

Today (July 25), Western Watersheds Project filed its answer to those claims, refuting all of the ranchers’ allegations and raising counterclaims against the plaintiffs, including their abuse of process for bringing the lawsuit in order to intimidate and destroy Western Watersheds Project and to conceal their own wrongdoing and the illegal environmental conditions on these lands.

“The ranchers really didn’t want the public to find out how much harm their cows were causing to the public waters,” said Travis Bruner, Executive Director of Western Watersheds Project. “Instead of spending time and money cleaning up their operations, the ranchers and Karen Budd-Falen are bringing a frivolous lawsuit. It is so clearly intended to silence us, but you’ll note that no one is claiming the data showing the astoundingly poor water quality conditions were wrong.”

Western Watersheds Project collected and submitted water quality data to the Wyoming Department of Water Quality that showed E. coli bacteria occurring at harmful levels. E. coli is a coliform bacteria spread by livestock through defecation in or near to water, and this causes harm to wildlife habitat, endangers drinking supplies and puts people at risk of infection. The Wyoming DEQ is obligated to release a list of the state’s impaired waters. Rather than release the report to the public, the DEQ released the draft to affected ranchers who then concluded, with no additional evidence, that trespass might have occurred up to nine years prior.

Western Watersheds Project is being represented in its response by leading environmental and civil liberties law professors who are taking the case pro bono because it is such an obvious attempt to sabotage the important work the organization does to uncover livestock industry abuses of public trust resources. The attorneys, Justin Marceau and Justin Pidot from the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, support WWP’s efforts to reveal the profound environmental impacts of these grazing operations to the public.

“This lawsuit has all the markings of an attempt to muzzle one of the few groups in the country that holds persons accountable for polluting our public waters. From what I have seen so far, this is really shameful conduct by a group of ranchers with too much to hide and too much money to spend on lawyers harassing small nonprofits,” said Justin Marceau.

“Federal law has long relied on groups of concerned citizens, like those involved with the Western Watersheds Project, to monitor pollution and enforce rules designed to protect our shared environment. Trespass law has become a favored tool to which individuals and businesses profiting from environmental degradation turn in an effort to silence criticism and conceal information about the consequences of their activities. Winning is often beside the point to plaintiffs in these lawsuits,” said Justin Pidot, attorney on the case. “Just filing the lawsuit imposes substantial costs on the defendants and chills citizen involvement in protecting public natural resources. To counter that chill, and protect the crucial role that citizens play in enforcing environment law, it is particularly important for defendants like Western Watersheds Project to have access to high quality, pro bono representation.”