Friday, November 20, 2009

Should private cattle graze on public lands?

It's a battle that has ranchers pitted against environmentalists. An ongoing legal dispute over grazing practices in the Malheur National Forest has many Eastern Oregon ranchers worried about their livelihoods and the future of their ranches. Environmentalists are concerned grazing on certain parts of the public forest is degrading habitat for threatened fish.

On Wednesday, ranchers from Central Oregon showed their support for their eastern counterparts at the Central Oregon Livestock Auction yard in Madras.

One-by-one, as cattle entered the auction floor, their weight was registered and the announcer started the bidding.

But once the animal was sold, the buyer immediately signaled he was returning the animal.

And so, the bidding started again on the same animal. It was an effort to raise money for the nearly $450,000 in legal fees the group known as Five Rivers Grazing Defense has incurred while trying to hold on to grazing permits on forestland.

Approximately 80 animals were donated for the fundraiser, which collected about $46,000 for the group.

The auction, which included the sale of other cattle, not just those in the fundraiser, started at 9 a.m. and was scheduled to last until about 10 p.m.

Land use lawsuit

The dispute was sparked by a lawsuit filed by the Bend-based Oregon Natural Desert Association against the U.S. Forest Service. ONDA would like to see the Forest Service remove grazing in certain areas along Forest Service land along the John Day River, an area important for steelhead habitat.

The ranchers found out the only way to have a voice in the debate was to file a lawsuit. So, they are also suing the Forest Service, whose representatives did not return calls for comment.

Steelhead are listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Brent Fenty, the executive director of ONDA, said grazing ruins riparian areas, kills cover that shades streams and keeps the water temperatures low, which fish need to survive.

“For us, it's straightforward,” Fenty said. “Our expectation in the short term is we want the U.S. Forest Service, charged with managing grazing, to comply with their own laws and regulations to protect stream health and native fish. In the long term, we hope to protect the most important areas of fish habitat.”

Fenty was quick to point out that he doesn't believe this is a precedent-setting lawsuit.

“I've heard other folks say this is a huge precedent for throughout the West,” he said. “This lawsuit hinges on specific data collected on the ground about conditions on specific allotments. And the Forest Service wasn't enforcing their own rules and regulations. It's less a question of public lands grazing across the West and more specific conditions on these allotments and whether the Forest Service is enforcing (management) to allow threatened steelhead and bulltrout populations to recover.”

Ranchers worry

But Trent Stewart, co-owner of the Central Oregon Livestock Auction in Madras, disagreed with Fenty.

That's why he agreed to host the fundraiser and donate all proceeds to the Five Rivers Grazing Defense fund. He said Central Oregon ranchers are also dependent on public lands, such as in the Ochoco National Forest, for survival.

“If they get started, it's not just going to happen there. Here in the West, we're dependent on public ground for grazing,” he said.

Jack and Katie Johns' Fox Valley ranch has been in their family for more than 100 years. They depend on the grass in the Malheur National Forest every year to feed their cattle. Without it, they would have to cut their cattle operation in half, and they worry about what would happen in the future to their family ranch.

Ken Holliday is another Five Rivers Grazing Defense rancher in Grant County.

“This isn't just going after grazing permits,” he said. “This is going after our ranches. ... It's not just public grazing but our livelihood. It's going after the next generations, our kids, our son. If (we lose), it's a done deal.”

Holliday said he believes ranchers are good stewards of the land and it's in their benefit to do so.

Historically, grazing has been used as a tool to manage forestland, he said. It helps prevent forest fires and helps create habitat for wildlife.

Federal study

Fenty doesn't disagree the lawsuit could make management tougher for ranchers.

“It goes back to this underlying question of what is the primary and best use of our public lands,” he said. “And I think for well over a century, grazing has been the priority use for public lands in the West. And I think changing social values recognizing preserving and restoring healthy fish populations is something we value our public lands for. ... I would hate to ... presume that just because it's historically been a priority, we assume it's a priority use in the future.”

Fenty said the National Marine Fisheries Service found steelhead populations in the middle, south and upper forks of the John Day were not viable and identified grazing as degrading the water quality.

The ranchers pointed to the large horse and elk populations and say they are responsible for trampling the area more than domestic cattle.

Elizabeth Howard, the Portland-based lawyer representing the ranchers, said the methodology used by the National Marine Fisheries Service to measure bank damage is erroneous.

“They go out and look for hoof prints along a certain area of stream,” she said.

“The problem is there is no correlation of hoof prints along the stream and impact to steelhead. ... They have never connected the dots,” she said.

Lauren Dake can be reached at 541-419-8074 or at

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