Monday, March 31, 2008

State, wildlife advocates spar over cattle grazing issue

Scott Sandsberry
Yakima Herald-Republic

He's just a Kittitas County cattleman trying to make a living, but controversy swirls all around Russ Stingley.

On one side are the state Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Washington Cattlemen's Association, brought together by the governor's office to allow grazing on large swaths of state wildlife land.

On the other side are critics who oppose letting cattle graze on land specifically purchased for wildlife and question its benefits. One Idaho-based conservation group has even sued, saying the state took shortcuts in order to fast-track cattle grazing.

In the middle stands Stingley, awaiting state approval to put his cattle out on 18,500 acres over six pastures of rolling shrub-steppe land known as the Skookumchuck, located east of Ellensburg and home to thousands of elk.

The state Fish and Wildlife Commission is expected to sign off on the grazing permit in the next two or three weeks.

But every day he waits costs money.

Like many Eastern Washington cattlemen, Stingley has more cattle than land and relies on lease permits to graze his livestock on state, federal and private land.

"April 1 was supposed to be the turnout day (on the Skookumchuck), and that's not going to happen," said Stingley. "So we'll be feeding hay for another three weeks or four weeks.

"We're feeding probably seven tons a day to close to 500 head (of cattle). This year, there's such a shortage of hay -- we normally pay $60 to $70 for a ton of hay, and this year we had some brought in last week for $150 -- and that's only if you can find it. I had a (cattleman) calling to see if I knew where he could find some for $200.

"With the price of wheat now, everything's so high, and corn -- with the ethanol deal -- growers are planting corn and taking hay out. It's probably costing us about $25,000 more this year just to feed the calves.

"If things don't change, there will be a lot less cattle around."

Grazing and its foes

Fewer cattle on state land, though, is precisely what opponents want, and they don't like the direction the grazing numbers are going.

Stingley's permit last year to graze the Whisky Dick Wildlife Area -- held up because of environmental requirements -- called for 160 animal-unit months (AUMs) over 8,400 acres. His Skookumchuck permit this year calls for 720 AUMs over 18,500 acres, between early- to mid-April and the end of June.

One AUM means one cow and one calf grazing for one month; 100 cows and 100 calves grazing in a pasture for 30 days, for example, would constitute 100 AUMs. During the two months of Stingley's permit, the state would allow 360 cows and 360 calves to roam about 18,500 acres.

That's significantly fewer livestock than traditional practice.

For years, the Skookumchuck was grazed by sheep, horses and many more cattle. That area "probably used to run 10 times more (livestock) than what we'll be running," Stingley said.

The Skookumchuck grazing is part of a coordinated plan involving numerous parties interested in the shrub-steppe hills of eastern Kittitas County, from private recreation groups to the cattle industry and public agencies such as the departments of Wildlife and Natural Resources.

It isn't part of the state's pilot grazing program in southwestern Washington, but opponents tend to view both in the same light -- as an inappropriate use of lands purchased to manage wildlife, and in many cases to save those lands from being so overgrazed that they're useless for wildlife forage.

Those same opponents say the only reason Wildlife officials want to allow Stingley's cattle on the Skookumchuck this spring is that they failed to meet State Environmental Policy Act standards in time to open the adjacent Whisky Dick area, where a grazing permit was to go to Stingley.

"They're doing this for one reason only, and that is to take care of one rancher," said Bob Tuck of Selah, a former state Fish and Wildlife commissioner who opposes grazing on state land.

"It's a perversion of the whole system...," Tuck said. "I'm sure he's a fine fellow, but the needs of one rancher should not drive where and what you graze."

Dueling science

While the Skookumchuck was for years subject to what one former state wildlife lands manager called "a lot of very, very bad grazing practices," it had long been coveted by the agency.

Its acquisition last fall connected the Whisky Dick and Quilomene wildlife areas, creating a broad landscape of publicly owned shrub-steppe, critical habitat for threatened sage grouse and other species.

The Skookumchuck had been called "the No. 1 critical habitat project" in a state fund to support wildlife and recreation.

"Suddenly (the state Wildlife Department) is giving the cattle industry what they want on lands that are supposed to be managed for fish and wildlife," said Katie Fite of Western Watersheds Project, the Idaho-based group suing the state. "It's just shocked me how the (department) and the governor, who has really been promoting this and is behind what's going on, have been ignoring current ecological science."

There's plenty of dueling science on the issue, with both sides quick to show research supporting their contentions about grazing's benefits or detriments to wildlife.

Cattlemen, for example, say cattle will eat cheat grass that would otherwise grow thicker and present a larger fire hazard to the open range.

Perry Harvester, who oversees the Wildlife Department's regional habitat division, said grazing is essential for managing wildlife across a large landscape -- with grazing as just one tool of many -- rather than on a per-site basis. Wildlife officials also say the cattle industry's support was a key factor in recent state acquisitions of large blocks of land that allow that kind of wide-scale management.

"That's what we're working towards in a cooperative-type grazing plan, to be able to manage it on a landscape scale," Harvester said. "The problem is, we rarely have opportunities where we have the ability to monitor, or the funds to monitor on the level we will out there.

"There's going to be much more intense scrutiny" under the state's management program, he said.

What about the elk?

That scrutiny will involve ensuring Stingley's cattle remove no more than 35 percent of the available forage in any of the six pastures that make up the 18,500-acre block (about 29 square miles). The rest is to be left as cover for nesting birds, like sage grouse, and forage for deer and elk.

In one 5,988-acre pasture of the Skookumchuck where Stingley's cattle will graze, state biologists doing aerial surveys earlier this month counted 979 elk. That's the most they've ever recorded there at that time of year. Typically, they count fewer than 80 elk in the pasture.

Biologists attribute the dramatic increase to a nearby winter road closure two years ago, which reduced human disturbance of the Colockum elk herd.

But what about the disturbance caused by the cattle moving in?

"That's the big question, isn't it?" said state wildlife biologist Jeff Bernatowicz. "Where are (the elk) going to go, and what are they going to find there to eat? And are they going to be running through people's fences

"One of the reasons behind all this (managed grazing), in theory, is to create good elk habitat to keep them on state lands longer. The reality is, if you put out cattle on April 1, the elk are most likely going to leave."

The elk will probably move into the higher-elevation pastures, above the flatter fields preferred by the cattle. They're accustomed to doing just that, since the Skookumchuck has been heavily grazed for years.

"Historically, the elk were probably being pushed out of there by April anyway," Bernatowicz said. "But we've never had that many elk there, either."

Keeping ranches around

For Stingley, getting state approval to have more cattle graze on the Skookumchuck than he would have been allowed on the Whisky Dick comes up short of what he was accustomed to. He's long leased on the Skookumchuck under both the state Department of Natural Resources and private land owners before the area's 2007 acquisition by the Wildlife Department.

And he'll have to do a lot more work. He'll have to keep rotating his cattle between the assigned pastures to keep the cattle from devouring more than the prescribed 35 percent of the vegetation.

"It's quite a bit more time-consuming now," Stingley said. "This is probably the biggest (managed grazing project) they've got going in the state -- and the most looked-at. After it goes through, the rest won't be quite as bad. A lot of this is just going to be to show that it does work, to show the (Wildlife) Department that it can be done."

If it doesn't work -- and the grazing worsens forage and ground cover for wildlife, as opponents anticipate -- wildlife won't be the only ones to suffer. So will small cattlemen like Stingley.

If he and other cattle ranchers can't find ways to remain profitable -- with monitored grazing on public lands -- the alternative might be much worse.

Some, said Jack Field, executive vice president of the Washington Cattlemen's Association, may simply opt to sell their private land to developers.

"The value of that land," Field said, "to keep it as a pasture or rangeland when you're looking at development plans in the $7,000, $8,000, even $10,000 per acre range, there's absolutely no way a farmer or rancher, or anybody in agriculture, can compete with the type of dollars coming from developers.

"When done right, grazing is an absolute benefit for both the ranchers and the wildlife, by maintaining those landscapes that surround the public lands. That's a buffer between the developers and our scenic areas. People would rather have one or two large landowners there than 250 ranchettes.

"And that's better for the wildlife, too."

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