Ranchers, conservation groups split on grazing ruling impact
A recent federal decision on cattle grazing on federal lands in Eastern Oregon has both ranchers and environmentalists claiming victory.
Federal district Judge Ancer Haggerty, with the U.S. District Court in Pendleton, found that cattle grazing in the Upper John Day River Basin damaged stream-side habitat, likely killing threatened steelhead, conservation groups pointed out. And the judge said the U.S. Forest Service had not done its job in making sure that damage wasn't occurring in the Malheur National Forest.
“This just reaffirms that livestock grazing and stream-side grazing is incompatible with maintaining the integrity of streams and maintaining fish populations,” said Noah Greenwald with the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the lawsuit's plaintiffs along with the Bend-based Oregon Natural Desert Association.
But John Day-area ranchers, intervenors in the lawsuit, note that the judge said they should have been involved in developing a grazing plan, and that the court did not call a halt to grazing in the Malheur National Forest.
“This is a win for us in lots of ways, because we still are turning cows out,” said Ken Holliday, a rancher along the John Day River.
Forest Service spokesman Glen Sachet declined to comment on the case, citing the possibility of future appeals. The Oregon Natural Desert Association started pushing for changes in grazing practices in the John Day basin more than a decade ago, said Brent Fenty, the association's executive director. The group filed lawsuits centered on habitat protections for steelhead, listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
“We've seen long-term declines in steelhead populations,” Fenty said. “Steelhead health and productivity has a lot to do with how healthy the habitat is.”
Cattle can trample banks, damaging the plants that grow along streams and rivers, eroding their edges while sediments cloud the water, he said.
According to the June 4 federal district court decision, in 2007 and 2008 grazing caused significant damage to steelhead habitat and likely harmed fish. The Forest Service had a plan, drafted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which set limits on how much damage could occur, and called for the Forest Service to monitor how much of the bank was altered by cows. But the agency did not complete that monitoring, according to the judge's decision.
“He took them particularly to task for that point,” Fenty said of the Forest Service. “You wrote a plan, or NOAA fisheries did, that fulfilled the legal requirements, but you're not enforcing them. ... What we've been looking for throughout this process is improved accountability on the Forest Service to enforce the law, enforce the regulations and ensure that steelhead populations are protected into the future.”
However, Holliday, the cattle rancher, points to the judge's statements regarding how the monitoring went according to plan in 2009, and was in line with the Endangered Species Act.
“We can graze responsibly,” he said. “We showed that last year, and the judge recognized that.”
Ranchers have been trying to help get money to the Forest Service so the agency can continue monitoring and ranchers can continue grazing cattle, said Loren Stout, a rancher in Dayville.
“If the government isn't going to do it, we don't have a chance,” Stout said. “They're going to have to step up.”
The grazing plan was “horrible,” he said, adding that in his allotment, wild horses and elk have caused damage even without cows there. The recent court decision states that ranchers should play a role in developing grazing plans.
What happens next for grazing in the area has not yet been determined — the judge next has to issue a decision on how to fix the problems. Stout said that other scientific studies need to be considered in a new grazing plan, and there need to be different standards for how much damage can occur. And the Forest Service has to keep monitoring the allotments, he said.
The ranchers don't have protection from lawsuits if the Forest Service doesn't keep up the monitoring, Holliday said, adding that he would like to see standards that look at the land over a period of time — not just a snapshot of one season.
Stream banks “are in better shape than they've ever been in our lifetime,” he said, and the John Day saw a large run of steelhead this year.
But grazing practices have been changing in response to the lawsuit over the last several years, said Greenwald with the Center for Biological Diversity. Some riparian areas have been fenced off, and fewer cows graze in other allotments.
“It's just a whole different mindset and management regime than what was there before,” he said. “Essentially before, they had free rein.”
And as a result of this lawsuit, the Forest Service will have to monitor the grazing allotments more than before, he said.
The Oregon Natural Desert Association would like to see either a temporary or permanent stop to grazing in some of the allotments where the stream banks have been badly damaged, Fenty said, so that the habitat can either be restored or allowed to recover.
And Greenwald said that it has long been the Center for Biological Diversity's position that areas around creeks, streams and rivers aren't compatible with grazing.
“There's just abundant evidence that livestock degrades stream habitat,” he said. “You can manage so there's less damage, but it'll always damage.”
There have been several lawsuits in the last decade or so to prevent cattle from grazing near waterways on public lands, he said.
“The trend has been to restrict cows from stream sides more and more, and I think that's going to be a continuing trend,” Greenwald said.
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