Judge halts Washington grazing project

Apr 30, 2010

Judge halts Washington grazing project

In southeastern Washington, an ongoing experimental grazing project administered by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) now faces a major hurdle resulting from the decision of a Thurston County Superior Court judge. Known as the Asotin pilot grazing project, the program consisted of a collection of studies designed to examine the effects, positive and negative, of livestock grazing on wildlife populations. Now in its fifth year, the project called for rotational grazing on the Smoothing Iron and Pintler Creek units of WDFW’s Asotin Wildlife Area in the extreme southeast corner of the state. A collaborative research effort, the Asotin project involves scientists from an array of state agencies as well as range and natural resource researchers from nearby Washington State University (WSU).

Early in 2008, Western Watersheds Project (WWP) and the Advocates for the West, two Idaho-based anti-grazing groups, filed a suit in Thurston County demanding that grazing be halted. They claimed that WDFW had failed to perform necessary environmental impact studies and alleged that WDFW’s own biologists objected to using grazing as a management tool in the wildlife area. In a hearing earlier this month, Judge Paula Casey dismissed the claim that WDFW had violated any state environmental laws. However, in a surprise ruling from the bench, the judge held that the department had acted arbitrarily by continuing the pilot program over the apparent protests of its own biologists. As a result of this preliminary ruling, the project, which was to have continued through at least 2012, has been suspended pending her final decision.

For Phil Anderson, WDFW director, the shelving of the grazing project translates to a loss in potential knowledge gained on the real effects of livestock grazing. "It’s unfortunate," says Anderson.

"I think that we had a chance to learn some very important things about the impact of grazing through this project, and I think that the project was designed to meet what I continue to believe is the standard of doing no harm from a wildlife habitat perspective." He adds, "I believe that we would have learned that we can have some benefits to habitat by having an appropriate amount of grazing activity on certain lands."

Dr. Linda Hardesty, an associate professor with WSU’s College of Natural Resources, agrees that research is going to be impacted by the decision. "It’s a five-year research project, and the initial intent was that there would be grazing each year, on a rotational schedule," explains Hardesty. "This would have been year number four, and we won’t have a grazing treatment for this year."

According to Hardesty, the university’s goal in the project was to evaluate whether livestock could be managed in a way that would be beneficial to wildlife. Her research focuses on goals such as using targeted grazing to produce higher quality forages and reduce weeds. Other researchers on the project focus on a variety of areas, including the nutritional content of the available forage and specific examination of the effects on federally endangered species.

Despite the cancellation of this year’s grazing, Hardesty asserts that research on the Asotin Wildlife Area will continue.

"We can still continue to monitor the vegetation, and particularly how the vegetation is responding to the previous year’s grazing," she says. "But we won’t have any new grazing information for this year."

She adds that although research will go on, the eventual results may be somewhat tainted by this sudden alteration.

"It does unbalance the experimental design, so the conclusions that we draw won’t be as strong as they would have been if we had grazing at the regular time this year. We’re still going to get good data from it; we’re just not going to be able to interpret it as well."

Hardesty also points out that this is true regardless of what the eventual results would have shown.

"For all we know," she says, "the conclusions might have supported Western Watershed’s opinions; we just don’t know."

With regard to the allegations of protests from WDFW biologists, Hardesty states that if major dissent existed, she didn’t see it.

"We met with their biologists also, and there has been a lot of discussion back and forth, and I’m not sure quite where (the claims) are coming from," she says, adding; "Of course, professionals do disagree on things within an agency."

Phil Anderson points out that the allegations of disagreement within his ranks, while possibly valid, are out of date.

"I think it’s fair to say that in previous years, in 2006 and 2007, there were some concerns that had been expressed internally," he says. "But we had addressed those concerns."

According to Anderson, the decision of whether or not to appeal the ruling, which applies only to the 2009 grazing season, will be based at least partially on this issue.

"We have on the record everything that happened in 2006 and 2007," he says. "I don’t believe it is really reflective of what we were doing in 2009."

It is also unclear as yet how this decision will affect grazing on WDFW lands in other parts of the state. According to WDFW, the department manages roughly 900,000 acres of state owned land, about 9 percent of which utilize grazing as a management practice. Of particular concern is the grazing currently allowed on portions of the Quilomene and Whiskey Dick wildlife areas in central Washington’s Kittitas County, two areas where grazing is contested, and that also face litigation from WWP. Although the county court’s decision in this case has no direct bearing on grazing in other areas, WWP’s executive director, Jon Marvel, has threatened further lawsuits if WDFW fails to tow his line.

"If the state chooses to ignore the decision because it technically applies only to the 2009 authorization for Pintler Creek on the Asotin Wildlife Area, and nowhere else, they do so at their own legal risk," Marvel told the Yakima Herald.

Judge Casey’s final ruling on the case is expected within the next few weeks, and WDFW will have the opportunity to appeal the decision at that time. Whether or not they do so, according to Anderson, is yet to be determined. "While this isn’t precedent-setting across the state, it is an important decision, and one that we’re going to have to think through carefully on how we’re going to proceed."