Rancher Ken Brooks is standing in his ranch yard near the ghost town of Fox , his eyes sweeping the timber-covered Malheur National Forest that holds the key to his future and that of 18 other Grant County ranching families.
"They're all pretty angry," he said. "We're all in the same boat. We're unsure what we're going to do. And most of all, we're unsure of the reason we have to do it."
A Dec. 30 ruling by U.S. District Judge Ancer Haggerty prohibits the ranchers from turning their cattle out on seven summertime U.S. Forest Service grazing allotments to protect threatened Middle Columbia River steelhead.
The latest decision in a years-long battle over the effects of grazing on stream habitat bans cows on 16 percent of the 1.7 million-acre forest, which has one the largest grazing programs of any forest in the Pacific Northwest.
The ban starts in June and would affect almost 4,000 mother cows and their annual calf crop valued at $2.8 million, ranchers and forest officials said.
Environmentalists who filed the steelhead lawsuit said the Forest Service and National Marine Fisheries Service must do a better job enforcing laws to preserve stream banks from roaming cattle.
"The court makes clear that the agencies have to make steelhead protection their highest priority," said Brent Fenty , executive director of the 1,400-member Oregon Natural Desert Association.
But outside the courtroom, Grant County is bracing for the economic repercussions, said county Commissioner Boyd Briton.
"There are families involved, there are employees," Briton said. "All those cows, the feed stores, the Les Schwab tire store downtown, the grocery stores, it affects all of us."
The sprawling, mountainous county has a single stoplight, no rail or interstate highway access, only three fast-food restaurants, one theater in an old Rebekah Lodge and a mere 7,500 residents on land twice the size of Delaware.
The county already is coping with unemployment higher than 14 percent. The 19 ranchers affected by the judge's decision represent about 20 percent of those who hold grazing permits on the Malheur.
The overall hit from the ban, perhaps 60 jobs, is the equivalent of losing roughly 7,000 jobs in Multnomah County, said Mark Webb, Grant County commission chairman.
Brooks, whose family has ranched between Fox and Mount Vernon for a century, expects some of his neighbors to quit ranching. He would have to reduce his herd from 450 to 150 cows, he said.
A reduction that dramatic would force him to lay off his two cowhands, he said, including one who's worked for the family since 1975.
The judge's ruling surprised John Grubel, a Forest Service district ranger in John Day, and Spencer Hovekamp, a branch chief with the National Marine Fisheries Service in La Grande.
Both said ranchers have made significant strides in the last two years toward meeting government stream bank standards.
Hovekamp, a fish biologist who keeps track of John Day River system steelhead, said recent adult returns have been high -- mostly due to favorable ocean conditions and not, as some ranchers claim, owing to improved range management. Ranchers also blame habitat problems on wild horses and elk.
Still, they "are putting in a lot of work" riding the allotments on horseback, monitoring cattle, repairing fences and shutting gates left open by other forest users so cows and calves stay out of areas where they aren't supposed to be, said Jeff Shinn, a Forest Service spokesman in John Day.
Hovekamp also noted that some problems are out of ranchers' control, including logging reductions and wildfire suppression that contribute to canopy shade that leaves less grass for grazing.
"Where the grass remains lush and growing is near streams," he said, and that's where grazing has the biggest potential impact on fish.
The grazing ban doesn't leave them many other options, ranchers said.
Private summertime pasture is relatively scarce. More than 60 percent of Grant County is federally managed, and ranches tend to be at low elevations and devoted to summertime hay production to feed cattle in winter.
Brooks, for example, owns 9,000 acres, but he needs to set aside some to produce 800 tons of hay, and much of the rest is in parcels scattered among federal allotments. Grazing those tracts while keeping his cows off enjoined federal lands would mean building 18 miles of fence at a cost of $10,000 per mile, he said. He can't afford that.
The one hope for ranchers is if a new biological opinion can be drafted by the Forest Service and approved by the National Marine Fisheries Service before June, showing that cattle can graze on those allotments without harming fish runs.
But Hovekamp said getting that done in time "doesn't seem likely" with a large and complicated grazing program. A more reasonable deadline would be June 2012, he said.
The quandary for ranchers is what to do now:
Should they hold onto their herds, gambling that they'll find summer pasture or that the judge will relent on the timetable? Or should they sell?
"The price is highest for cow-calf pairs in January and February," Hovekamp said.
-- Richard Cockle
U.S. District Judge Anser Haggerty's ruling is the latest in a series of legal squabbles over the Middle and Lower John Day River and its North Fork and Middle Fork subbasins.
2003: The Oregon Natural Desert Association, Center for Biological Diversity and Western Watersheds sued the National Marine Fisheries Service, claiming Middle Columbia steelhead -- federally listed as threatened in 1999 -- have declined below historic levels because of stream bank damage caused by livestock.
2008: A ruling by Haggerty halted grazing on 100,000 acres of the Malheur National Forest.
June 2009: Haggerty reversed the 2008 order and denied a request by environmentalists to halt grazing on another 200,000 acres on the Malheur. The reversal allowed livestock to return to the Murderer's Creek and Lower Middle Fork John Day River allotments. The judge also allowed grazing on other allotments that environmentalists wanted off-limits to cattle. At the same time, ranchers and the U.S. Forest Service agreed to rest the so-called Long Creek allotment from grazing.
2010: Haggerty closes grazing on seven Malheur allotments encompassing 283,000 acres, starting in June 2011.
2011: The Hells Canyon Preservation Council and Oregon Natural Desert Association file a separate, major lawsuit challenging the U.S. Forest Service's renewal of grazing permits on the Malheur, Wallowa-Whitman and Umatilla national forests. Environmentalists charge that grazing was improperly reauthorized on more than 250,000 acres of public lands without thoroughly assessing the effects and without adequate public disclosure, among other things.