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Grazing on Public Land: Helpful to Ranchers, but Harmful to Habitat?

July 28, 2008

By Lynda V. Mapes, Seattle Times

Jul. 28–ELLENSBURG — Russ Stingley rides high on a chestnut horse and moves his bellowing and bawling cattle through this open country that stretches for miles.

How he got here is a story as old as the West: a mix of political wheeling and dealing, and deference to the cult of the cowboy — sagebrush and all.

Just as true to the history of the West, much of the land where Stingley runs his herd isn’t his. It’s state-owned land: fragile, sagebrush-steppe terrain that’s among the rarest ecosystems in Washington.

Stingley, a second-generation rancher, raises cattle and about 300 acres of hay near Ellensburg — and without access to public lands for grazing, Stingley said, he’d probably just forget about the cows and stick with hay.

“It’s a lot harder to find pasture ground in the Kittitas Valley than it used to be,” Stingley said. “Now it’s mostly houses. If we wasn’t out here, we’d be out of the cattle business.”

Ranchers and leaders at the department say putting cattle on state fish-and-wildlife habitat land has a double benefit: They want to find out if closely managed cattle grazing can help stimulate the growth of plants that nourish deer and elk. And giving ranchers access to state land helps them keep their herds and businesses alive.

But so far, the effort has been a mixed bag for the department: part art, part science, part misstep, liberally watered with agency staff time — and plenty of public money. Now an increasingly vocal group of critics — including some of the state’s own biologists and other local ranchers — say the programs are creating sacrifice areas on the landscape and amount to a handout to politically connected ranchers.

They point to overgrazing, water befouled by manure and sediment, and critical fish habitat damaged by wallowing herds on some pastures as evidence that the state needs to halt the programs immediately.

Pilot-project controversy

Livestock grazing on Department of Fish and Wildlife land dates back to the 1940s. The department manages about 900,000 acres and allows grazing on about 5 percent of it.

Most controversial is the department’s Pilot Grazing Program on the Blue Mountain Area Wildlife Complex in Asotin County, in the state’s southeast corner. The program started in 2005, with the support of Gov. Christine Gregoire, as a way to help the Washington Cattlemen’s Association.

The move followed a meeting in 2005 between Gregoire and the industry group.

According to an e-mail from Elliot Marks, then one of Gregoire’s advisers on natural-resource policy, the meeting resulted in two steps by the state:

The Governor’s Office appointed a man recommended by the Cattlemen’s Association to the state Fish and Wildlife Commission. And the officers of the association met with department staff “on the issue of their having increased access to state lands, and the purchases of some ranches by the state,” Marks said in an e-mail.

In November 2005, the department signed an agreement with the cattlemen to launch the experimental Pilot Grazing Program, allowing the cattlemen to run their cows on public wildlife lands at no charge.

Since 2006, the department spent at least $142,819 on staff time and buying fencing, pipe, troughs and wire to implement the program. In the current budget, the department is set to spend at least $300,000 more on fences, water improvements and monitoring.

Agency staffers have put in nearly 4,000 hours on grazing plans, installing fencing by the mile, herding cattle, attending meetings and monitoring. It’s time that one expert said is taken from other work.

Benefits to the state

Jeff Tayer, a manager for the Fish and Wildlife Department, said the grazing on department lands is much less intensive than when the land was privately held. And he said the grazing program benefits the state because it achieves support from locals, necessary for political backing from the Legislature to acquire habitat land.

Tayer said the biggest risk to rare habitat isn’t cattle at all. It’s conversion to agriculture or development, which together have already consumed two-thirds of shrub-steppe habitat in Washington.

To make his point, on a recent visit to the land near Ellensburg he pulled his state SUV over next to a highway billboard: “Peaceful Views, Quiet, Beautiful 20 acre home sites, only 12 left starting at just $68,000!” said the ad for Sage Hills, a development.

“We had the support of the local cattlemen and farm bureau to buy this land,” said Tayer, looking over a sweep of sagebrush steppe not far from the development. “It’s only broad political support that helped us get there.”

To Stingley, the program is also smart politics for the governor. “She didn’t win [the last election] by a whole lot, and she loses too much support on the east side of the mountains,” Stingley said.

“This shows maybe she cares about somebody beyond the big corporates.”

Glimpses of good, bad

But managing fish and wildlife habitat for cattle grazing has been difficult.

Last year, cattle were stocked in one pasture at nearly twice the levels the department’s management plans allowed. It took 11 days for anyone to notice, and an additional two days before the animals were removed, state records show.

And there have been other problems this year, including severe overgrazing.

Earlier this year, the Western Watersheds Project, an environmental group in Hailey, Idaho, filed suit in Thurston County Superior Court to kick the cows off Washington wildlife lands. Hearings on the case begin this month.

A recent tour of wildlife lands by the department, contrasted with a second tour offered by a grazing opponent later the same day, illustrated what can go right and wrong.

At the spot where Stingley runs his cattle, the program was picture-perfect. The rancher moved his animals out smartly as a department biologist looked on to make sure the animals were off the department’s ground on schedule.

The lands Stingley uses include a mix of public and private land, managed under a plan initiated in 2006 that allows landowners to use it cooperatively, for purposes such as wind farming and cattle grazing. That benefits recreational users, private land owners and wildlife, Tayer said.

But later that afternoon, Bob Tuck, of Selah, Yakima County, a former member of the Fish and Wildlife Commission who now teaches environmental education in public schools, showed another section of department ground managed under the same cooperative program.

Here, the ground around watering tanks and a spring was trampled to dust. A single cottonwood remained in what should have been a green corridor. The sole survivor offered testimony of what was once here: an oriole’s nest swung from a branch, its architect a flash of yellow in the sky. Grass grew long in the shade of the tree — and nowhere else.

Then a bellow blasted from the sage. A pair of confused calves looking for their mother.

They weren’t supposed to be here, according to the grazing schedule, nor were the more than 12 others lumbering through the dust. Trespass cows, from another farmer’s land.

The damage done to this ground was done over decades, before the department bought it. But Tuck and others say now that this land is publicly owned wildlife habitat, it should be left alone to recover.

He called the grazing programs “an illegitimate political child.”

“Forget the ecological part, which is bad enough,” Tuck said. “The department is chronically short-funded, and to divert staff time and money just to support this borders on irresponsibility. It amounts to an unfair subsidy.”

Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or lmapes@seattletimes.com

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