August 5, 2008

The Bakersfield Californian Lois Henry Column: Lois Henry: Cows Are Not Public Enemy No. 1

By Lois Henry, The Bakersfield Californian

Aug. 5--If you've never visited the Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge area, you should. It's incredible country in southwestern Kern County. Its rugged, stark beauty can take your breath away.

Unfortunately, it's being run by a unit of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that also leaves me breathless (OK, sputtering), for their incredible arrogance.

I learned about the Bitter Creek controversy last week when the Kern County Board of Supervisors was told by the Planning Department that refuge managers, located in Ventura, proposed to limit grazing as a management tool on the refuge and instead use fire -- on more than 9,000 acres. Granted, they wouldn't burn it all at once, but that's a lot of grass to torch, even a little at a time.

Fish and Wildlife held no public meetings on the proposal and when our Planning Department stumbled over the plan (they weren't even notified) and requested a public hearing, Fish and Wildlife said no.

In its environmental assessment, Fish and Wildlife says a public meeting wasn't considered because of the limited "intensity of environmental impacts anticipated" and the lack of "anticipated controversy."

Uh. Wrong.

Funny thing, but we in Kern County might think burning off thousands of acres of grass would have an "Intense environmental impact" on our already fouled air basin. And some of us might like to have a say in the matter before it's a done deal.

That's just scratching the surface, though. Dig deeper and things get worse.

After reading the environmental assessment, which includes the bone-headed burning proposal, I was shocked by the contradictions contained in the document as well as what it lacked.

But here's the bottom line: They don't like cows.

Seriously, if Fish and Wildlife could load up a crop duster with "cow-b-gone," I think they'd coat that refuge an inch thick, no matter how much the Fish and Wildlife spokesman I spoke with might deny an anti-cow bias.

Chris Barr, deputy project leader for the Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge Complex, which includes Bitter Creek, stressed that the proposal prefers seasonal grazing. It's really a pro-grazing document, he told me.

But seasonal grazing as outlined in the proposal wouldn't be economical for ranchers, according to Richard Snedden who ranches next to the refuge and Art Steinbeck who had leased the ground for nearly 20 years before he was shut out by Fish and Wildlife in 2005 while they "rested" the land.

The seasonal grazing concept doesn't allow ranchers any flexibility, they explained. The document even lays out what type of cattle are preferred -- steers, not cows. Steers, according to Fish and Wildlife, don't bunch up like cows and don't revisit already overgrazed areas.

Actually, according to both ranchers and a U.C. Davis rangeland specialist I talked to, the exact opposite is true. Clearly, a rangeland specialist did not help prepare the environmental assessment.

The assessment also states that "stair stepping" -- the trails cattle make across hillsides -- promotes erosion. The rangeland specialist I spoke to said he'd never heard of a study showing that to be the case.

Responsible grazing is a natural way to reduce fire hazards and increase biodiversity, Snedden said.

"They know they need it, but there's just a negative bias toward cattle," he said.

For background purposes you should know that Bitter Creek was a working cattle ranch for more than 100 years before the U.S. government bought it in 1986 as a refuge for the California condor, which had been feeding and nesting there, right alongside the cows, for as long as anyone can remember.

The environmental assessment, however, is rife with anti-cow angst.

It cites a number of studies (some not specific to the land in question and many from decades past) that say, among other things, that cattle introduce noxious weeds and non-native grasses, cause soil compaction and erosion, push out native deer and other hooved animals, foul the water, step on kit fox burrows and are just flat ugly.

I'm not making that up. Of all the alternatives listed in the study, only cattle get an F in "aesthetics." (Oh, the refuge is closed to the public, by the by, so I'm not sure who's so offended by the sight of cows.) Cows are also dinged because their manure is visible from the road. Not even burning and its inherent scarring gets a mention for aesthetics.

Once you read something like that, it's hard to take the rest seriously.

My biggest concern, however, was about what wasn't in the document -- studies that show whether grazing has adversely affected the condors, or any other species for that matter.

Not in there.

Barr told me that surveys had previously been done on the land, such as one in 2002 that assessed the grazing fees and program.

That's not the same as a study that looks at whether responsible grazing harms a species. I asked several times about baseline studies as well as why a rangeland specialist wasn't consulted and continued to get a polite but evasive, non-responsive response.

As for the lack of public input, Barr told me the agency has received 53 comment letters and would accept any new ones even though the official public comment window has already closed. But the National Environmental Policy Act doesn't require public hearings.

Supervisors and U.S. Rep. Kevin McCarthy are still going to try.

They've sent letters to Fish and Wildlife seeking a hearing and, if they decline, McCarthy and the Planning Department will hold their own hearing and Fish and Wildlife will be invited to participate.

I hope someone in U.S. Fish and Wildlife figures out that this refuge is a part of Kern County.

But they're already so far out there, we may be waiting till the cows come home.

Opinions expressed in this column are those of Lois Henry, not The Bakersfield Californian. Her column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Call her at 395-7373 or e-mail [email protected]


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