Ranchers and environmentalists have locked horns over cattle grazing for years. Now a battered economy and a looming court decision are fueling a full-on battle in Grant County.
On one side, ranchers and the county chairman say proposed grazing limits could deal a knockout punch to more than a dozen cattle operations and, because of job losses and lost tax revenue, county social services.
On the other side, an environmental group says wild steelhead are in decline because of stream bank damage caused by grazing cattle.
"The mood here is not good," says Mark Webb, chairman of Grant County commissioners in Canyon City. "A lot of livelihoods" ride on the pending ruling by U.S. District Judge Ancer Haggerty in Portland. A hearing in the case is scheduled for June 9.
The debate affects an eastern Oregon county that has twice the space of Delaware but just 7,500 residents. Grant County is so sparsely populated that it has only one stoplight and three fast-food restaurants, plus a one-night-a-week movie theater in an old Rebekah Lodge. Towns are tiny, with frontier-style buildings harking to the gold rush.
More than 60 percent of the county's land is federally owned, and the John Day River system has more miles designated as wild and scenic than any in the nation.
Unemployment at 18.8 percent in county
The recession has hit the county especially hard. The unemployment rate in March, according to figures by the Oregon Employment Department, was 18.8 percent, compared with 12.9 percent statewide and 9 percent nationwide.
At issue are six grazing allotments on U.S. Forest Service land. The allotments, all in the Malhuer National Forest, encompass about 250,000 acres across a vast tapestry of mountains, canyons, meadows and pine forests.
Three environmental groups, including the Bend-based Oregon Natural Desert Association, filed a request April 10 for an injunction that would banish cattle from the allotments.
Brent Fenty, the group's executive director, says damage in the allotments is severe and threatens the survival of native Middle Columbia steelhead, federally listed as threatened in 1999.
"Something needs to be done about it," he says.
Fenty says the environmental group has collected data over a decade that show steelhead runs far below historic levels.
17 ranches use six allotments
Webb, the county chairman, says 17 ranches use the six allotments and that long-term closures could drive at least half of them out of business, worsening unemployment. The drop in tax revenues, in turn, would shrink funds for social services, hurting even Blue Mountain Hospital in John Day, he says.
And Webb says an injunction could actually hurt steelhead habitat by shifting cattle to private ranchland, where overgrazing could occur along streams. On the ungrazed federal land, grass could grow out of control in summer, raising wildfire risk. And ranches could even be broken up, he says, resulting in homebuilding and loss of rangeland and habitat.
Environmentalists, he says, forget how much fish and wildlife habitat ranches provide.
Spencer Hovekamp, spokesman for the National Marine Fisheries Service in La Grande, says the injunction, if granted, would mean eight allotments in the Upper and Lower John Day River and its North Fork and Middle Fork subbasins would be closed to livestock. Two allotments were closed by a May 2008 ruling.
He traces the grazing debate to two decades of fighting over timber sales in national forests. Without logging, tree canopies have expanded, he says, shading out grass. Cattle migrate toward streams, he says, where grass is more plentiful.
He declined to comment on steelhead numbers, saying only that the fish are not recovered. He says it's possible to have both steelhead and cattle on the Malheur National Forest, though it may mean more fences and more cowboys tracking cattle on horseback.
The Five Rivers Grazing Permittees
Ranchers, meanwhile, have formed a legal defense fund to fight for cattle grazing: The Five Rivers Grazing Permittees. The group's 42 Grant County ranchers have assessed themselves $10,000 each for attorney fees, says co-chairman Ken Holliday of John Day.
Holliday, 53, says cattle are sometimes blamed for stream bank damage caused by elk and wild horses. He also says a rule prohibiting more than 10 percent stream bank disturbance on some allotments was grabbed out of the sky by the National Marine Fisheries Service. The rule couldn't be met even if no cattle were present, he says.
Environmentalists "are beating ranchers over the head and trying to put us out of business," he says. "I don't understand it."
In February, about 500 supporters showed up at a benefit auction at the Grant County Fairgrounds, raising $77,000 for ranchers' legal costs.
But as bills mount, Holliday says, ranchers may not be able to keep up the fight much longer.
-- Richard Cockle; firstname.lastname@example.org