July 10, 2008

Kittitas Grazing on the Agenda

By Scott Sandsberry, Yakima Herald-Republic, Wash.

Jul. 10--YAKIMA -- The proposed cattle grazing on state wildlife areas in eastern Kittitas County will be getting a more complete public airing beginning Tuesday.

A public scoping meeting, set for 6 to 9 p.m. at Ellensburg's Kittitas Valley Event Center, will be the first step in the state wildlife department's development of an environmental impact statement to address the possible ramifications of managed grazing on those wildlife lands.

"The focus of this meeting is to get all the issues on the table," said Jeff Tayer, regional director for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. "We want to hear from people what the issues are that ought to be analyzed."

The Kittitas County grazing is part of the Wild Horse Coordinated Resource Management plan devised by a number of private landowners and public land managers, of which the WDFW is just one party. But the use of its wildlife areas for grazing livestock has become a lightning rod for ecologists and conservationists.

One group, Western Watersheds Project, sued the WDFW last year over the department's decision to graze the Whisky Dick wildlife area without doing an impact statement beforehand. The state subsequently backed off that project, but this spring allowed a Kittitas cattleman, Russ Stingley, to graze his cattle on the adjacent Skookumchuck area, acquired last year by the wildlife department.

Western Watersheds then expanded its suit to include the Skookumchuck project for the same reason -- the lack of a preliminary inventory of the vegetation to be grazed.

Stingley's cattle grazed on five Skookumchuck pastures and were then moved off onto private lands by the end of June. The plan had originally been for him to graze a sixth pasture, Upper Skookumchuck, but that was pulled from the project because of the possible presence of federally protected steelhead in Skookumchuck Creek, said Whisky Dick Wildlife Area manager Cindi Confer.

Confer said Stingley lived up to the WDFW's requirement that his cattle not consume more than 35 percent of the available vegetation, though she said the utilization in some areas was more extensive that that.

"There can be areas that get used more than 35 (percent), but overall he used less than 35. It's an average thing based on the whole area," she said. "We'll be looking at different areas and determining, 'OK, did these get overutilized, and if so, do we need to look at whether that needs to have lessened use in the future?'"

Steve Herman, a Yelm biologist who is on the advisory board for Western Watersheds Project, said monitoring grazing projects based on an overall average is the wrong approach.

"I'm concerned about the areas that are hammered. It's absolutely inappropriate to average these things," he said. "It's like removing a limb from a person and then measuring the other three limbs and dividing by four and finding that there are still four limbs -- they're all just a little shorter.

"This is not science. This is sleight of hand."

An attorney for Western Watersheds, though, said the WDFW's decision to do its environmental impact statement is a positive step.

"It's a surprising turnaround for the department, because they've been insisting all along these (grazing lands) were exempted from SEPA (the State Environmental Protection Act). "Now they reverse course.

"It's something we've been asking for all along, to take a careful look at the impacts. So we're pleased they're going to do an EIS."


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