As wildfires blackened more than 1 million acres of the West last week, the debate over grazing on public land took on greater urgency and meaning.
It also provided several faces to the debate. Meet Jeanette Yturriondobeitia. She and her husband, Richard, have a ranch in southeastern Oregon, near the town of Basque, population 10.
They own the 12-Mile Ranch, which has borne much of the brunt of the 512,000-acre Long Draw wildfire -- the largest in recent Oregon history -- that roared across the region last week. They have lost 130 cattle and ranch structures -- and they almost lost their house.
"We came back from moving cattle in the middle of the night and found seven pumper trucks lined up defending our haystack and house," she told Capital Press reporter Dan Wheat.
With that much land -- most of it used for grazing -- blackened, she wonders how they'll get through the rest of the year.
"Every bit of our winter range and what's left of our summer range is burned," she said.
The couple is a founding member of the Trout Creek Mountain Working Group, which formed in the 1980s and included other ranchers, state and federal agencies and several environmental groups. Together, they agreed to reduce grazing on federal allotments to allow fish and wildlife habitat to return to health.
The area had been overgrazed, but in the intervening 30 years the wildlife habitat has returned to health and even the population of rare Lahontan cutthroat trout has more than doubled, to 24,000.
In light of their success they have been talking with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the federal land in the area, about increasing their grazing. More grazing would not only allow the them and their neighbors to run more cattle, it would maintain the habitat and, just as importantly, reduce the amount of grass that fuels wildfires.
Rangeland experts say properly managed grazing benefits the land and habitat. State and federal land managers agree, but are constantly harassed by some environmental groups, which cling to the notion that any grazing only spreads weeds and hurts wildlife habitat. They say cheatgrass, which can be spread by livestock, displaces native grasses that naturally resist fire.
For that and other reasons, they oppose virtually any grazing. Their goal is to convince the government to buy out grazing allotments across the West.
The problem for the environmental groups is that a lack of grazing could be worse for wildlife than properly managed grazing, just as no logging can be worse for forest ecology than properly managed logging.
As was proved by the Trout Creek group in Oregon and other similar groups across the West, wildlife habitat, streams and fish populations do thrive alongside grazing.
The sage grouse is of particular concern to all Westerners, particularly those who ranch. The bird, which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says warrants protection under the Endangered Species Act, lives in 11 Western states and two Canadian provinces. As a "candidate" species for federal protection, it poses a threat to grazing because it lives in sage brush.
Agencies such as the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the BLM have formed initiatives and working groups with ranchers to make sure the grouse populations remain healthy. They know that properly managed grazing will benefit the grouse and its habitat.
Wildfires also devastate wildlife habitat. Because cattle and sheep eat the grasses that fuel wildfires, more grazing could have reduced the severity of the blazes that scorched vast swaths of prime sage grouse habitat last week in Oregon, southern Idaho and elsewhere.
Meet Jared Brackett. He is the Idaho Cattle Association's vice president and ranches near Castleford, Idaho, where about 219,000 acres burned in the Kinyon Road fire.
He told Capital Press reporter Sean Ellis he is "extremely upset, disappointed and frustrated" that extra fuel -- grass that cattle grazing could have reduced -- was allowed to remain in the Jarbidge Resource Management Area, part of which the massive fire blackened.
"When you're only utilizing 5 to 10 percent of the resource, this is what happens," he said. "We're trying to help this bird out but they keep saying grazing is a threat to it. Well, fire is a greater threat."
He is correct.
Resource and rangeland managers know that cattle and wildlife can get along. They also know that ranchers are willing participants in efforts to protect and improve habitat and reduce wildfire dangers.
But the extreme environmentalists and their lawyers disagree. They want grazing stopped, no matter that it helps the environment and wildlife such as the sage grouse. As long as they can use the deeply flawed Endangered Species Act to stop grazing, they'll do it.
Maybe those environmental groups should think about filing another lawsuit. Maybe they should sue themselves for damaging the sage grouse's habitat by opposing more grazing.
Just a thought.