©2002 Cascadia Times
10 western rivers trampled by the livestock industry
5 Owyhee - Oregon,
and scenic cattle grazing
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.
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
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.
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.
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."
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.