by DAN WHEAT
WHITEHORSE RANCH, Ore. -- Arid vistas of sagebrush and grasses. Green fields in valleys.
The high desert country of southeastern Oregon has healed. Where thousands of cattle once worked their way across the landscape, only a fraction of that graze today, allowing the plants, streams and fish to recover.
Willows now flourish along stream banks, water quality and riparian conditions have improved, and rare lahontan cutthroat trout in creeks now number 24,000 compared with 10,000 in 1989, said Garth Ross, a wildlife biologist for the Bureau of Land Management in Malheur County, stationed in Vale, Ore.
A 20-year-old agreement reached by seven ranchers, state and federal agencies and environmental groups has restored fish, wildlife and habitat while preserving grazing rights for cattle.
Ranchers, who say they are grateful they're even still here, add that they've kept up their end of the bargain by drastically reducing grazing to allow the land to recuperate. Now they wonder whether they'll be able to regain at least some rights to more grazing in return.
Richard Yturriondobeitia, owner of 12-Mile Ranch, is an original member of the Trout Creek Mountain Working Group, which negotiated the agreement.
"Our management practices are better and we had our eyes opened to things we were doing wrong, but there is no progress," he said. "The agreement didn't turn out to be exactly what we thought it would be. We didn't make the BLM establish certain goals so we weren't able to get grazing we thought we would."
The region's sprawling ranches, incorporating both private and public land, are shadows of their former selves in numbers of cattle and cowboys. They are not alone.
Other cattle ranchers throughout the West want more grazing but feel outnumbered by environmentalists, who challenge grazing on publicly owned land because it can threaten species that are or may be listed as endangered or threatened under federal law.
How it started
The threat of environmental lawsuits aiming to stop decades of overgrazing and degradation of streams and fish brought Doc and Connie Hatfield, ranchers from Brothers, Ore., to spearhead the working group in the late 1980s. The Hatfields, best known as founders of the Country Natural Beef cooperative, had been involved in an agreement in the Prineville, Ore., BLM district. BLM officials invited them to speak with Trout Creek Mountain ranchers.
Their intent, according to their own booklet on the history of the working group, was to save both the environment and the region's ranches.
Since the 1960s, ranchers had tried fencing and keeping cattle away from creeks in the heat of summer but degradation continued, the Hatfields wrote in their "History of the Trout Creek Mountain Working Group."
The group formed in 1988. The seven ranches and representatives of the Oregon Cattlemen's Association, BLM, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Oregon Environmental Council, Oregon Trout and the Izaak Walton League reached the final accord in 1992.
High-mountain grazing that occurred all summer was reduced to mid-May to mid-July to give grass time to regrow before fall and prevent grazing of willow and vegetation along streams. The shortened high-country grazing is allowed for two years in a given area and followed by two years of no grazing rest.
The ranches voluntarily stopped high-country grazing for three years before the agreement was completed.
Prior to the agreement, the area had close to 30,000 AUMs (animal unit months). An AUM is one month's grazing for one cow and one calf. Now grazing is reduced 6,640 AUMs, the BLM's Ross said. The total number of cattle is probably down 75 to 80 percent, he said.
Of the ranches affected by the agreement the Whitehorse Ranch was hit the hardest, ranchers said. It went from 3,000 to 3,500 head of cattle down to 800, said David Herman, who bought the ranch in 2006.
But that doesn't necessarily mean less profitability, he said.
"It's hard to know. Profit isn't always more volume," he said. "It's keeping costs in line."
With high beef prices the ranches are doing relatively well and may for some time since the supply of beef likely will lag behind demand for the foreseeable future, Herman said. On the flip side are rising costs, including fuel.
Comparing profit now to 20 or 30 years ago is hard to do, said Yturriondobeitia, owner of 12-Mile Ranch, the closest ranch east of the Whitehorse. But the ranches have been impacted financially by cattle weighing less and poorer conception and weaning rates because of less summertime high-country grazing, he said.
The mid-May to mid-July high-country grazing is too early and doesn't fit the grass, he said. Grazing an area for two years then having two years of rest isn't needed; proper timing of grazing is, he said.
The ranchers thought they were making progress toward some changes in the last five years but a new BLM manager went "back to doing things by the book," Yturriondobeitia said. The BLM moves employees around so relations seldom get beyond getting to know them, he said.
Yturriondobeitia is of Basque descent and is 67 years old. His wife, Jeanette, is 66. They hope their son, Dan, 43, and daughter, Jaime, 40, will keep the ranch going.
"But if we can't have consistency and goals, why would the next generation even want to do it?" he asked.
What others say
Grazing of willow along streams is now down to 2 percent while 20 percent is allowed by the agreement, Herman said.
Fish, wildlife and habitat are better off but "where's the advocate, where's PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) for the cows?" he asked.
Cattle are stressed because they are moved too early when they are lactating or just calved or on a certain calendar date when it may be too hot, Herman said.
He's trying to do his part, he said, in breeding cattle better suited for the desert that are 30 percent Angus, 20 percent Hereford, 20 percent Braford, 20 percent Beefmaster and 10 percent Chianina.
Gary and Marjorie Defenbaugh and their son, Ross, own the nearest ranch west of the Whitehorse. They also are original working group members but their land is in a different BLM district, where high-country grazing is allowed into mid-September.
The Defenbaughs are concerned about the Oregon Natural Desert Association, an environmental group, pushing to declare their BLM range land wilderness, ending all cattle grazing.
The BLM is scared of environmental groups but could do more seeding and brush control to manage lands for grazing, Marjorie Defenbaugh said.
Land near their house appeared overgrazed. There is overgrazing in spots on their private land because it's a dry year of lighter grass production, Marjorie said.
Steve and Amorita Maher own a ranch south of 12-Mile Ranch and east of Oregon Canyon Mountains. They are also original members of the working group, as were her parents. His father was cow boss of Whitehorse Ranch in the 1950s.
"To my knowledge no one ever signed anything. The BLM just gave us an ultimatum so we had to work things out with the environmentalists. Otherwise, we wouldn't be running cattle," Steve Maher said.
The first few years they didn't reduce their herd enough and overused the lowlands, Maher said.
Mid-May is too early to graze the high country because grass hasn't grown enough, he said. Mid-June to mid-August was allowed for awhile and worked well, he said.
He is working to get a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biological opinion changed to allow mid-June to mid-August high grazing and two years of grazing followed by one year of rest instead of the current two on and two off. Better high-country grazing is needed because most of the ranches don't have the lowland winter range that the Whitehorse has, he said.
Riparian areas are in excellent condition and BLM range conservationists work well with the ranches, Maher said.
"We've never had a lawsuit against us and we feel that's a positive thing," he said.
Part of a larger picture
While cattle ranchers in other parts of the West have ended up embroiled in lawsuits with environmentalists, the Trout Creek Mountain Working Group Agreement has been used by judges to toss out environmental challenges because of the environmental groups that signed on.
That's why the grazing rights of the agreement, Maher said, have been called the most secure grazing rights in the West.
Ken Bentz, a rancher near Crane, is the grandson of Paul Stewart, who owned Whitehorse Ranch from 1945 to 1961.
"Everyone always talks about compromise, but it was a little bit (of grazing rights) or nothing. There was no compromise," Bentz said of the agreement.
Ranchers throughout the West who depend on BLM grazing rights feel outnumbered and jeopardized by environmentalists pushing the BLM, he said.
"People think we have no right to be here even though we do. The person with the cow owns the grass and the government owns the land," Bentz said. "We were here long before the government showed up and said they own the land in the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934."
The act allowed the government to regulate grazing on federal land.
Rep. Greg Walden, who represents Eastern Oregon in the U.S. House of Representatives, co-sponsored a bill, HR4234, authorizing the BLM and U.S. Forest Service to award grazing permits for 20 years instead of 10. The idea is to give ranchers more certainty to invest in their ranches. The bill passed the House June 19 and went to the Senate.
It's really in the public's best interest, Herman said, to maintain cattle grazing.
"The public spends money to fight fires. The public wants beef to eat," Herman said. "People think the rancher is getting a sweet deal on grazing, but we pay for those permits. Everyone agrees grazing renews the grass. Without it, the grass stands dead and is fuel for fires."