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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Grazing ruling changes landscape

The Little Pend Oreille National Wildlife Refuge near Colville won’t be reopened to widespread cattle grazing after a ruling last week by U.S. District Judge Edward Shea of the Tri-Cities.

Local officials and ranchers have decried the decision as a blow to the region’s economy and an example of federal heavy-handedness. Environmentalists, however, say the ruling is a rare victory for wildlife in the livestock-dominated West.

“At some point you have to have the courage to stand up and say this is a national wildlife refuge,” said Don Tryon, with Friends of Little Pend Oreille National Wildlife Refuge, one of two conservation organizations involved in the lawsuit. “Cows are harmful to native fish and plants. It doesn’t matter what kind of phony science you cook up.”

Although the land was set aside as a national wildlife refuge nearly 70 years ago, ranchers had been grazing cattle in the region’s grass-filled river valleys from the time settlers first arrived in northeast Washington. Beginning in 2000, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began phasing out grazing on the refuge in an effort to protect native species, including ground-nesting birds and trout streams.

About 200 cows had been allowed to roam portions of the 40,000-acre refuge. By 2005, the last year of widespread grazing, only one rancher grazed cattle on the refuge. A year later, a lawsuit was filed by local ranchers and a coalition that included Stevens County and several farming groups. The suit alleged federal laws were violated in the Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to end grazing. Judge Shea disagreed, saying the agency took the appropriate steps.

Jack Field, vice president of the Washington Cattlemen’s Association, said no decision has been made on appealing the case, which he said has prompted two local ranchers to “liquidate their herds.” In addition, the case could set “a terrible precedent as we look at refuges across the country.”

Field, of Ellensburg, defended grazing as “an excellent tool” for controlling weeds, reducing the risk of wildfire and keeping forested areas open for wildlife forage. “Not only does it help the land and help the refuge, it helps the economy,” he said.

Environmentalists agree there might be instances where hungry cows have some benefits to the land, but not on a refuge.

“This isn’t about being anti-grazing or anti-ranching. There’s plenty of places to graze cattle in Eastern Washington. This is a place we’ve set aside for wildlife habitat,” said Noah Matson, vice president for land conservation with Defenders of Wildlife.

“It takes a humble act of society to carve out these places for wildlife protection. They’re little splotches on the landscape we have dedicated for wildlife. Their needs come first.”

From 1965 to 1994, the federal refuge was managed by the State of Washington, which had relatively relaxed rules when it came to human uses of the land, said Merrill Ott, a Stevens County commissioner and rancher. Along with accommodating several hundred head of cattle, the refuge became a popular recreation area, including for motorcyclists and snowmobilers.

Federal management, especially after passage of the 1997 National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act, began putting the needs of wildlife above people, Ott said. That’s been a tough pill to swallow.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re a human being, you’re a second-class citizen on the wildlife refuge,” Ott said. “Grazers did not receive what I consider a fair enough treatment under a plan that was devised to kick them off.”

A team of federal grazing experts and scientists has recently begun reviewing the appropriateness of grazing on the refuge. Although the group has no formal powers to reverse the grazing ban, Ott hopes the effort might again find a place for cows on the Little Pend Oreille.

Limited grazing in dry sites away from streams is still permitted on the refuge, though no ranchers have taken up the offer, said Steve Fowler, assistant manager of the refuge. Although Fowler said he’s sympathetic with the plight of ranchers – especially after the shift from state to federal management – the 1997 refuge reform law gave the agency a clear mandate to protect native species.

“That’s very hard to do if you have an animal here that was never here before,” Fowler said of cows. “Their impact is quite large.”

Since the end of grazing, certain plants and animals at the refuge have made a comeback, Fowler said. Ground-nesting birds are no longer trampled. Grasses again grow tall enough to shelter fawns. Aspen trees are no longer nipped short. Muddied trout streams are also making a slow recovery, he said.

“Wildlife is the bottom line here,” Fowler said.

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