Summer 2002

The Big Dry

Cows plus drought equals misery for rivers in the West

Top 10 western rivers trampled by the livestock industry

1. Bear River -- Utah, Wyoming, Idaho

2. Salmon River -- Idaho

3. Gila River -- New Mexico, Arizona

4. John Day River -- Oregon

5. Owyhee River -- Oregon, Nevada, Idaho

6. Sweetwater River -- Wyoming

7. Big Hole River -- Montana

8. Little Humboldt River -- Nevada

9. Yampa River -- Colorado

10. Kern River -- California

Buyout or Bailout?

A Killing in the Klamath

2002 Cascadia Times

Top 10 western rivers trampled by the livestock industry

10 Kern River - California


This cud's for you

With its unique brilliant color, Golden trout are native to just one river system on the planet, the Kern in California's southern Sierras. Golden trout, California's state fish, survive in the alpine meadows of the Kern Plateau.

The golden trout has been in trouble since the start of the 20th century, when brown trout from Europe and rainbow trout from other Western rivers were introduced into the Kern. By the 1940's biologists noticed that the golden trout had become rather ordinary looking. The rare fish had been interbreeding with other species.

All this time, the Kern's alpine meadows were being heavily grazed by several ranchers. By the 1990s, the pure strains of golden trout had been isolated from other species, but not from cattle. Cows owned by beermaker Anheuser-Busch and three families had destroyed most of the wet alpine meadows and caused massive erosion along the river beds. Sagebrush had replaced native vegetation.

One of the ranchers is grazing cattle in the sensitive Mulkey Creek watershed at the top of the Kern basin. "That's some of the only remaining pure strain California golden trout habitat," says Bret Matzke, public lands director for California Trout. "We've lost the species pretty much. There may be a few populations out there that might not be hybridized."

But the Budweiser bovines are gone. In 2001, the Forest Service announced it had cancelled Anheuser Busch's two 10-year permits to graze in Inyo National Forest and in the Golden Trout Wilderness. The decision also meant no more Budweiser cows in the Sequoia National Park, where they often grazed illegally.

The decision to get rid of the Budweiser cows marked the first time grazing allotments in the entire state of California had been rested for resource protection. But it did not come easily for the Forest Service. Initially the agency proposed to allow the cows to remain, even though it acknowledged they would continue to damage golden trout habitat. The Forest Service also admitted it would have to build fencing in wilderness areas to keep cows out of streams, even though "fencing in designated wilderness may not meet the intent of the Wilderness Act." Experts from the Bureau of Land Management's National Riparian Service not only advised the Forest Service the grazing should continue, but found no need for any change in grazing management.

But after the Inyo National Forest received some 1.300 comments from the public in support of a proposal to eliminate Budweiser's cows from the Kern, the agency changed its mind. Budweiser's two permits were cancelled as of September 30, 2001, "to comply with the intent of the Wilderness Act." But the decision will be reviewed in 10 years, and the cows may come back.

"The area is not suitable for grazing, its too high elevation," said Matzke, public lands director for California Trout.

Even so, three ranchers continue to graze cattle in the area, including one who appealed the cancellation of the Budweiser permits. The Forest Service has rejected that appeal.

One of those ranchers grazes an area called Monanche Meadows, where cattle damage has severe[ly] damaged streams and wetlands. "It's turned into a mini-Sahara, with miles of sandbanks where the river has widened to 10 times its normal width," says Matzke. "In some years the river goes dry."

The good news, he says, is that Budweiser's former allotments are recovering - albeit very slowly. "The question is time," Matzke says. "Without grazing, it's going to take 50 years. With grazing you're looking at 100 years."

And what if the Budweiser bovines return? "They will over my dead body," he says. "But with this administration, I wouldn't be surprised."

As for the golden trout, it's future is still at risk. In 2000, Trout Unlimited petitioned the Fish and Wildlife Service to list it as an endangered species. In June 2002, a federal judge ordered the agency to take action.

"Trout Unlimited is, as a rule, disinclined to litigate, but we have exhausted all other options and there is a certain urgency to this situation," said Steve Trafton, Trout Unlimited's California policy coordinator. "Golden trout could very well face extinction if they had to wait for the Fish and Wildlife Service to get to our petition, and the fact is we've lost nearly two years already since we filed for listing. Neither we nor the state fish can afford to lose more time."