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

5 Owyhee - Oregon, Idaho, Nevada


Wild and scenic cattle grazing

The canyonlands of Owyhee country are carved deep into the high desert. The Owyhee. Jarbidge, Bruneau hide in gaping canyons in some places a thousand feet of sheer basalt below the plateau where Oregon, Idaho and Nevada meet.

As Gilly Lyons, a longtime grazing activist put it, "it's the deep, incised basalt canyons and the waters flowing through them that capture the hearts and minds of most visitors. Literally hundreds of miles of rivers and streams crisscross the Canyonlands' three million acres. These waterways tumble and gurgle across three state lines, undaunted by political boundaries."

The Jarbridge flows into the Bruneau in Southwest Idaho, and the Bruneau enters the Snake. The Owyhee takes a course through Nevada and Idaho before veering west into Oregon, and then north where it meets the Snake near Vale.

Oregon, Idaho and Nevada have vastly differing ideas about what to do with this shared desert cape. Oregon boasts about 200 Wild and Scenic River miles in the Owyhee (the North Fork Owyhee, the West Little Owyhee, and the mainstem Owyhee). Idaho and Nevada have none. In Idaho, 344 river miles have been deemed "eligible" by the BLM for Wild and Scenic River designation; Nevada has 26 such eligible miles.

Unfortunately, those arbitrary boundaries have huge repercussions for the Owyhee River and its tributaries. "As soon as the federally-protected Wild and Scenic Owyhee River leaves Oregon and enters Idaho, it becomes the wholly-unprotected Owyhee River,´ says Lyons, the Washington, D.C., outreach coordinator for the National Public Lands Grazing Campaign, a group that wants Congress to buy back all grazing permits on federal land. "Same physical landscape, different political landscape."

The cow's presence is felt throughout the Owyhee landscape, polluting the water, dewatering streams, trampling seeps and springs, and inviting a weed invasion of epic scale. In 1996, the BLM again examined the health of the streams in the Owyhee, and found that 91 percent of the stream miles inventoried were in unsatisfactory condition. In fact, the BLM had found streams were in worse condition than 15 years before.

In September 2002, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco said enough. In upholding a lower court ruling requiring the BLM to remove half the cattle from the Owyhee Canyonlands, and to improve range and stream conditions, the court ruled that grazing hurt fish and wildlife.

"Water is life, and the health of the Owyhee depends on the health of its streams," the appeals court said. "Unfortunately, cattle overgrazing now threatens the life of the Owyhee."

The appeals court ruling could impact the entire West. "This is the most direct address of the environmental harms of grazing by a federal appeals court,² said Boise attorney Laird Lucas, who teamed with William Eddie of the Land and Water Fund of the Rockies to represent Western Watersheds Project and the Committee for Idaho's High Desert. "The ruling that BLM¹s grazing management is badly outdated will have impact far beyond the Owyhee Canyonlands because the same problems exist across the West."

"Ranchers will have to manage their cows to protect the land or get out of the business," said Katie Fite, CIHD's executive director.

Five years ago, environmentalists scored one of their most decisive victories over damage caused by grazing. In 1998, the Oregon Natural Desert Association sued the BLM in 1998 for failing to protect and enhance the river's values as required by the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. The Owyhee lands host more than 200 species of wildlife, including peregrine falcons, golden eagles, pronghorn antelope, elk, cougars, bobcats, redband trout, and sage grouse, and all are threatened by grazing. The lush riparian areas and high altitude forests are also threatened.

The U.S. District Court of Oregon ordered the BLM to permanently eliminate all cattle grazing from all areas in the Owyhee Wild and Scenic River corridor.

ONDA won the case, forcing the BLM to remove cattle from most of the river canyon and, along with its partners in Oregon, has now set its sights on securing the court's decision with permanent protection of the canyon as wilderness or a national conservation area.

On the Idaho side, activists campaigned for a two-million acre National Monument during the last few months of the Clinton Administration,. While the campaign did attract national attention to this remarkable place, in the end, the Owyhee Canyonlands was not among Clinton¹s new monuments.