Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The graze divide: domestic sheep and bighorns separated for safety reasons

NACHES, Wash. -- On the slopes overlooking the Nile Valley from the north side of Highway 410, seeing wildlife is no big deal. But when someone happened to see three bighorns in July up Rock Creek, it was a very big deal indeed.

The bighorns weren't far from where the Martinez sheep-ranching operation would soon be herding out roughly 1,000 ewes and their lambs on a section of the Wenatchee National Forest.

And bighorns and domestic sheep simply cannot mingle.

The latter are often carriers of bacterial parasites, such as pasteurella, that have minimal effect on domestic sheep but in bighorns can cause pneumonia virulent enough to decimate a herd.

So state wildlife biologists were called. They phoned officials at the Naches Ranger District, who contacted the Martinez family, which in turn delayed and then redirected its sheep, skipping some slopes they might have grazed simply to prevent even the faintest possibility of crossing paths with the bighorns.

It was a typically proactive response by Nick and Mark Martinez, brothers who run a third-generation family business in Moxee that was begun by their grandfather nearly nine decades ago.

Forest Service and state wildlife officials are highly complimentary of the Martinez family's can-do adaptability when bighorn issues arise.

"In fact," said Jodi Leingang, the Naches district's range coordinator, "sometimes they're ahead of us on these matters."

Soon, though, the game will be played with different rules.

The people who manage Washington's wildlife and public lands are awaiting an Idaho plan that may lead to sweeping changes in how best to maintain a safe distance between bighorns and domestic sheep -- and just how big that buffer zone will have to be.

"It depends on how big they draw that circle," Nick Martinez said. "If they're drawing that circle 10 miles around the one (bighorn) sheep, well. ..."

The Payette precedent

How big that circle will be may be determined in Idaho, where Payette National Forest officials are within a few weeks of unveiling a long-awaited draft environmental impact statement on how to protect bighorn sheep.

The Payette -- a 2.3 million-acre stretch of land that abuts the Snake River and Hells Canyon, site of a pasteurella-related bighorn die-off in the 1990s -- has been a simmering legal battlefield between sheep ranchers and environmentalists for six years.

Sheep ranchers, like their counterparts in the cattle industry, rarely have sufficient privately owned land to provide year-round grazing and have relied on leasing grazing land from state and federal land managers. The Payette, like the Okanogan and Wenatchee National Forest in Washington, has been grazed by domestic sheep for decades. But it's also home to bighorn sheep.

When Payette Forest officials released a 20-year forest plan in 2003, tribal and environmental groups appealed, saying the plan failed to address the bighorn-sheep proximity issue. Two years later, the Forest Service called for the plan to be rewritten, and in 2007 three conservation groups sued to prevent sheep grazing until the plan is finished. A federal district judge ordered ranchers to remove their sheep from several grazing allotments within the Payette forest to protect bighorns.

Last summer, the Idaho Legislature enacted a law to keep the sheep and bighorns apart, but its execution relied on cooperative efforts -- pacts between the ranchers and state officials -- to ensure that separation. But just this month, the same federal judge ruled that one such pact wasn't doing the job; he ordered a western Idaho rancher to vacate an allotment in the Payette that his family's sheep had grazed for 70 years.

Washington land managers are waiting as the Idaho drama plays itself out. If the Forest Service plan in Payette strikes a fair balance between bighorns' safety concerns and the ability of sheep ranchers to make a living -- and survives the inevitable salvo of lawsuits -- it could offer a blueprint when officials in the Okanogan and Wenatchee National Forest revise the bighorn portion of their forest plan.

"The information they're developing, and the direction they're going, will set the direction nationally" for management of bighorns and domestic sheep, said Donnie Martorello, who oversees Washington's bighorns for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

"It's the precedent."

Adapt or lose

Bighorns disappeared from Washington in the 1930s, victims of pasteurella, excessive hunting and people moving onto their land. Reintroduction efforts by state biologists, sportsmen associations and Native Americans have helped build the population back up to about 1,300.

But because of the risk of bacterial infection, their survival remains tenuous. The Yakama Nation long ago banned domestic sheep grazing in the closed area of the reservation, decades before the tribe began a highly successful bighorn reintroduction program five years ago. (The tribe's bighorns, numbering 13 in 2004, were up to 89 at the last aerial survey.) When one of their bighorns wanders into an area where there might be grazing sheep, tribal biologists relocate it or, on rare occasions, put it down to prevent it from possibly infecting other bighorns with bacterial pneumonia.

"All it takes is just one (sheep-bighorn interaction)," said Arlen Washines, head of the Yakamas' wildlife program, noting that the tribe had made the decision to "be consciously competent" about its bighorn policy. "It's not hard science to see what happened once could happen again."

Nearly all of the federal national forest and Department of Natural Resources areas grazed by the Martinez sheep between western Yakima County and northern Kittitas County include either bighorns or habitat suitable to bighorns. So it didn't surprise Leingang, the Naches district's range coordinator, when the Martinezes reacted quickly last July to avert a possible bighorn encounter.

The family has had a lot of practice adjusting. When livestock grazing leases were eliminated on the Yakima Training Center in 1995, the Martinez operation lost a significant portion of its business; its roughly 6,000 sheep now is a little more than half what the family had two decades ago.

"We've been around long enough to know you've got to adapt," Nick Martinez said. "If you don't, you're gonna lose."

Writing on the wall

In July, when the bighorns were spotted up at Rock Creek, all that was lost was some good grazing days by the Martinez sheep.

"Which sounds like no big deal, but it is," Leingang insisted. "Maybe they don't lose a season of use with something like this, but (the sheep) lose days of grazing -- which, because they're eating less and we're moving them quicker and moving them around, there's the potential for them to lose weight, and what they're out there for is to gain weight to take them to market.

"And we didn't even hear any whining (from the Martinez family)."

Grazing will remain an adaptive process for sheep ranchers either way, but the ramifications from the Payette process will be profound.

"It has the potential to be huge," said Nick Martinez, who has put any plans for possible business expansion on hold. "The writing is on the wall. You don't want to expand and all of a sudden have to pull three allotments, and you've got hungry sheep wanting to be fed.

"If you start losing half your allotments, where do you go? What happens when (a couple of bighorns) show up in the middle of an allotment? It's the not knowing what's going to happen that makes it hard. We can work with Bernie (state wildlife biologist Jeff Bernatowicz) and Jodi (Leingang), but what if it's some third party who's making decisions by looking at numbers on a piece of paper?"

Monday, October 19, 2009

Wild horse plan rekindles cattle grazing debate

A new federal proposal to manage wild horses is rekindling debate over another fixture of the Western range: cattle.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar last week proposed moving thousands of mustangs to preserves in the Midwest and East to protect horse herds and the rangelands that support them.

Interior Department officials had warned that slaughtering some of the 69,000 wild horses and burros under federal control might be necessary to halt the rising costs of maintaining them, but Salazar said his plan avoids that.

Many horse defenders and others who had been working to save the romantic symbols of the American West and might have been expected to welcome Salazar's solution instead stampeded the other way. They want Salazar to remove livestock to make room for the mustangs and argue that cows are the real threat to the range and native wildlife.

"Any proposal to improve horse and burro management in the West should include removal of domestic livestock from public lands to make way for horses and burros and wildlife," said Mark Salvo of WildEarth Guardians based in Santa Fe, N.M. He said too much forage is allocated to livestock in the arid West.

Wildlife ecologist Craig Downer of Nevada accused Salazar, a former rancher, of acting on behalf of those who view mustangs as taking scarce forage away from their cattle herds. Downer contends cattle are more destructive to the range because they concentrate in high numbers around water sources instead of grazing over a wider area as wild horses do.

"Both the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management have the right to remove livestock to ensure viable, healthy populations of wild horses. But they refuse to exercise that," Downer said. "Their master is primarily these traditional ranching interests."

BLM spokesman Tom Gorey said livestock grazing on the agency's lands has declined by about 50 percent since 1941, but the agency has no plans to reduce grazing levels further.

"Livestock grazing is an authorized use of the lands we manage," Gorey said. "We think we administer the rangeland laws appropriately within our multiple use mission."

Dan Gralian, president of the Nevada Cattlemen's Association, said livestock overgrazing no longer is the problem it once was and cattle don't cause more damage to the range than horses. He said 2.5 million to 3 million head of livestock graze on public lands, down from 20 million cows and 25 million sheep in 1900.

"My reaction is they (horse advocates) are totally wrong," Gralian said. "Our public lands today are in better shape than they've been in 100 years or so."

Federal land managers provide no count for the head of livestock grazing on about 250 million acres of public land. Estimates by conservation groups vary widely, ranging from 3 million to 8 million.

Chris Heyde of the Washington, D.C.-based Animal Welfare Institute said he believes little has changed since the release of a 1990 General Accounting Office report that branded livestock as the primary cause of degraded rangelands.

"People blame the horses, but if left on the ranges as they should be they're not destructive at all," he said.

About 37,000 wild horses and burros roam on 34 million acres in 10 Western states, about half in Nevada. An additional 32,000 of them are cared for in government-funded corrals and pastures.

The horses and burros are managed by the BLM and protected under a 1971 law enacted by Congress. But too few of the horses and burros are being adopted as had been envisioned. Soaring numbers of horses and costs to manage them that are expected to jump from $36 million last year to at least $85 million by 2012 have prompted Salazar to propose a new approach.

The BLM has set a target "appropriate management level" of 26,600 horses in the wild, about 10,000 below the current level. In 1971, there were 25,000 of the animals on the range.

Ginger Kathrens, executive director of the horse advocacy group Cloud Foundation based in Colorado Springs, Colo., urged Salazar to return mustangs to 19 million acres of land where they have been removed since 1971. She opposes his plan to open seven preserves, including two owned and operated by the BLM.

The agency would work with private groups on the remaining reserves, which would be located in the Midwest and East because of the West's scarce water and forage.

"It would seem that the best use of taxpayer dollars and the most humane plan for the nearly 32,000 wild horses in government holding would be to return them to their native lands," Kathrens said.

Gorey said mustangs were removed from 19 million acres where they were found in 1971 for various reasons, including a lack of water and forage.

The Public Lands Council, which represents public lands ranchers, supports the preserves as an important step in addressing growing horse populations, said Jeff Eisenberg, its executive director.

The seven preserves would hold about 25,000 horses. Many of the horses remaining on the range would be neutered and reproduction in Western herds would be strictly limited.

"It's important that we find a solution that provides for the welfare of horses without compromising the needs of ranchers who rely on grazing lands to produce food for America," Eisenberg said.

NM Ranchers Worry About Water Protection Proposal

Thousands of miles of New Mexico rivers and streams would gain special protection under the federal Clean Water Act as part of a proposal being pushed by Gov. Bill Richardson and environmentalists. But ranchers worry the plan is a backdoor effort to stop grazing on public land.

State environment officials have spent more than two years refining a proposal to designate rivers and streams in wilderness areas across the state as so-called "outstanding national resource waters" to protect them from degradation.

Other Western states have used the designation to protect fresh water resources, but this marks the first time New Mexico has embarked on such a broad effort to protect headwaters.

"One of our biggest challenges in New Mexico is figuring out how to protect and maintain our water resources in a way that is sustainable and economically supportable, and these are not easy decisions to make," Marcy Leavitt, head of the New Mexico Environment Department's Water and Wastewater Division, told a group of landowners at a recent public meeting in Abiquiu.

Like other states, Leavitt said New Mexico is dealing with persistent drought, hotter temperatures and a booming population — all drastically impacting fresh water supplies.

New Mexico's largest cities are switching to surface water as ground water resources dwindle. Much of that includes treated wastewater that's pumped into rivers by communities upstream.

The headwaters offer the last remaining infusion of fresh water into the system, meaning their protection is vital to ensure future water quality, Leavitt said.

No one disputes the need to protect New Mexico's water, but ranchers see the plan to designate waterways across such a broad swath of wilderness — far from pollution and cities — as another ploy by environmentalists in a decades-long battle to halt grazing on national forest lands.

"This whole thing with the Clean Water Act, it's just a front. They want our land, they want our water, period," said Carlos Salazar of the Northern New Mexico Stockman's Association.

The designation would allow existing activities, including grazing, to continue in wilderness areas provided landowners follow practices to ensure water quality remains high.

But ranchers say the proposal is ambiguous and would establish new layers of bureaucracy that would harm New Mexico's rural economy.

"People are very worried," said Caren Cowan, executive director of the New Mexico Cattle Growers' Association. "Given that the wilderness areas are already protected from everything but grazing and recreational activities, what are we going to protect it from?"

The designation has been used only twice in New Mexico — for the Rio Santa Barbara and for rivers within the Valle Vidal. Such designations usually come after much analysis of water quality and potential socio-economic impacts.

Critics say little study has been done on the many waterways that would be covered and neither the Environment Department nor the U.S. Forest Service — which oversees wilderness areas — has the staff or funding necessary for adequate enforcement.

The Forest Service's Southwest regional office, livestock groups and officials from some New Mexico counties have said they do not support a blanket designation.

"A forest-by-forest, watershed-by-watershed or, best of all, a segment-by-segment analysis and designation of streams would allow for the most meaningful and fully supported designation of the appropriate waters," the Forest Service said in comments submitted to the state.

Forest Service officials are concerned the designation could affect firefighting efforts, forest restoration projects, mining claims, grazing permits and rural communities.

While the current proposal would apply to headwaters in wilderness areas, ranchers said more allotments could be affected because the Richardson administration and environmentalists have indicted they will pursue an expanded designation to include roadless areas.

Ernie Torres, whose family raises cattle in northern New Mexico, said ranchers already deal with pressure from environmentalists, endangered species concerns, drought, rising costs and range damage from wildlife.

"This is going to be the last nail in the coffin," he said.

The Environment Department is drafting a final version of the proposal for consideration by the state Water Quality Control Commission.

If approved, Abiquiu rancher Virgil Trujillo said cattlemen won't have many options.

"Our history is the history of take and take some more, and what hurts is government is not accountable," he said. "There are a thousand rules of how they're going to nail the rancher, but you try to take the government to court and you'll die of old age or stress."

Cowan said such a broad designation eventually could affect urban areas.

"Can subdivisions exist or grow? And what kind of city expansion can we do if a very small special interest group gains control over water?" she said. "These people have a very specific agenda and we're just a small part of it."

Environmentalists argue they're protecting water quality amid climate change and growing demand.

"A lot of people just don't like having somebody tell them what they can or can't do, but they're using public lands for these activities and I think they ought to accept the fact that the public has a right, as well as they do, to make sure that all of the land, for all purposes, is kept as good as possible," said Michael Jensen of Amigos Bravos.

Despite the cool reception state officials have received at public meetings in rural New Mexico, Leavitt has tried to reassure ranchers and others that the designation won't affect existing activities if water quality is maintained.

She said those who think this is an effort to push them off public land should read the proposal.

"The existing proposal does a good job of balancing water quality protection with also protecting traditional land uses, and I think we will make any clarifications necessary to make sure people really understand that's what we're doing," she said.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

US settles grazing lawsuit with Nevada rancher

A Nevada rancher who has fought the federal government for more than a decade over grazing and property rights has settled a civil suit with the Justice Department over livestock trespass, the government said Wednesday.

The stipulation filed in U.S. District Court in Reno ends the government's case against Goldfield rancher Ben Colvin.

John C. Cruden, acting assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's Environment and Natural Resources Division, said the agreement partially resolves "many years of disputes and litigation" over unauthorized grazing on federal lands in Nevada.

Colvin's lawyer, Jonathan Hansen, was out of town and unavailable for comment, his office said.

In 2007, the government sued Colvin, the estate of late Nevada rancher Wayne Hage and Hage's son, claiming they repeatedly defied federal land managers by grazing cattle without permits on land overseen by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service.

Wayne Hage came to epitomize Nevada's Sagebrush Rebellion, a movement that gained momentum in the 1960s and '70s to retake control of federally owned public lands. He died in 2006 at age 69.

The suit further alleged the Hages unlawfully "leased" lands owned by the government to other ranchers for livestock grazing.

Under the agreement announced Wednesday, Colvin paid a $34,000 fine and agreed to comply with federal grazing regulations in the future. It also requires him to remove unauthorized improvements he made on the public lands, such as aboveground water pipelines, water tanks and corrals.

Once those conditions are met, he can reapply for grazing permits, the government said in a written statement.

The settlement pertains to Colvin only, and the government's suit against the Hages is still active.

The BLM canceled Colvin's grazing allotment preferences in the late 1990s. In 2001, the agency seized and auctioned 62 of his cattle, saying he was trespassing on federal land and owed the government $73,000 in back fines and fees.

Colvin filed against the government in the federal claims court two years later, seeking $30 million in compensation. A judge denied his claim, and that ruling was later upheld by an appellate judge, BLM spokeswoman JoLynn Worley said.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Fund will help ranchers deal with Mexican wolves

Federal wildlife officials and the National Fish and Wildlife Federation have signed an agreement establishing a trust fund to help ranchers deal with the impacts of endangered wolves that have been reintroduced in the Southwest.

The Mexican Wolf Interdiction Trust Fund, announced Tuesday, aims to alleviate some of the bitter feelings that have been brewing among ranchers and environmentalists since the endangered Mexican gray wolf returned to the region more than a decade ago.

Ranchers have long complained about wolves feeding on their cattle and threatening their livelihood, while environmentalists have criticized ranchers' grazing practices and the federal government's management of wolf recovery efforts.

"I am confident the interdiction program will not only advance wolf conservation by addressing the economic impacts of our Mexican wolf reintroduction efforts, it will also improve and conserve Arizona's and New Mexico's unique and important landscape and land use practices," Benjamin Tuggle, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Southwest region director, said in a written statement.

The Mexican wolf, a subspecies of the gray wolf, was exterminated in the wild by the 1930s. In 1998, the government began reintroducing wolves along the Arizona-New Mexico line, in a territory of more than 4 million acres interspersed with forests, private land and towns.

There are now about 50 wolves in the wild in Arizona and New Mexico, but that's half of what biologists had hoped to have by now.

The reintroduction program has been hampered by illegal shootings, rancher complaints and removal of wolves that have violated the program's three-strikes rule. Federal agents can kill, or trap and remove, any wolf that has been involved in three livestock kills within a year.

Under the interdiction program, trust fund money will compensate ranchers for livestock kills and finance grazing techniques that prevent depredation by wolves. The fund also can pay for range riders to keep the wolves from livestock.

Caren Cowan, executive director of the New Mexico Cattle Growers' Association, said ranchers support the program because it offers several options.

"We think that anything like this is definitely worth the effort," she said. "We're willing to try most anything."

Officials haven't settled on a dollar amount for the trust fund, but Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Tom Buckley said the goal is to have it be self-sustaining.

Cowan estimated the fund would need at least a few million dollars.

"A lot of things all come down to the economic sustainability of the industry, and is the program going to provide that to us? At least there is a hope of that," she said.

Potential funding sources include private donors, livestock and environmental groups and government agencies. Officials said all interdiction activities will be paid for by donations and interest on the fund's principal.

While the program may help over the long term, Cowan said ranchers in southwestern New Mexico are in a desperate situation right now because of recent decisions by the wolf recovery team to leave wolves in the wild despite their having more than three kills.

Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity said there may be good intentions behind the trust fund, but he's concerned that the stakeholder council governing the fund will be more sympathetic to ranchers than wolf recovery.

Buckley said the agreement establishing the fund is clear that the money will not be used for any projects that would have a negative impact on the wolves. He said the council will be made up of a mix of stakeholders, including ranchers and conservationists.

The trust fund, Buckley said, is an attempt at finding middle ground.

"We are trying not to take sides in either direction," he said. "We want to go down the middle, and we encourage all the parties on either side to get together to accomplish what's in their own best interest. We think this program will go a long way to doing that."

Robinson said officials should think carefully before "throwing money at the problem." He argued that a better way to use the trust fund would be to compensate ranchers willing to forego their grazing privileges on public land, but many ranchers have been critical of such a suggestion.