An environmental group’s latest dust-up with the U.S. Forest Service is over a plant.
Greater Hells Canyon Council of La Grande has filed suit over what they say is the agency’s “failure to meet its duties to protect and recover threatened Spalding’s catchfly in the Hells Canyon National Recreation area.
The suit was filed in January and is making its way through the court system.
The council maintains reauthorizing grazing in pastures where the plant is found without taking adequate protection measures is not helping matters.
Wallowa County is the only spot in Oregon where the catchfly lives. It is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
While the conservation group’s objections refer to public lands, Wallowa County voices maintain the plant is doing well on private property negating overall claims it is not being protected.
“The vast majority of Spalding’s catchfly in Wallowa County is found on private ground,” according to a statement released by Wallowa Resources’ Board of Directors. “Federal agencies do not have authority to regulate private land management activities that may affect native rare plants. Public lands are a different story.”
Prior to the knowledge of the lawsuit, Wallowa County Stockgrowers and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service were seeking funding to inventory known catchfly sites and surrounding area, the statement continues. “These efforts are ongoing and will help document the plant’s recovery.”
The Nature Conservancy in Wallowa County has also played a role in locating and monitoring plants on their property. It has also been conducting research on land management that promotes healthy conditions for Spalding’s catchfly populations.
Greater Hells Canyon Council says that The Lower Imnaha Rangeland Analysis issued in 2015 found that grazing in Forest Service allotments “clearly has a damaging effect on Spalding’s catchfly and its habitat.”
“The Forest Service rejected recommendations to conduct regular botanical surveys on this newly-discovered population, making it difficult to make informed grazing management decisions,” according to their statement.
Kris Stein, area manager for the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area at the time, is named as a litigant in the suit.
A paragraph on Page 11 of the analysis states that the alternative “which is environmentally preferable” is one that eliminates cattle grazing.
“This alternative was not selected in part because of negative social and economic impacts on the local community and current permitee.”
The Forest Service does not comment on pending litigation.
“The goal here is to have the plant delisted,” said Darilyn Brown, executive director of the council.
Wallowa Resources believes cooperation, not legal action, is the way to ensure the recovery of Spalding’s catchfly.
“Local parties recognize the benefit of promoting responsible grazing practices across the region,” the statement says. “We have agreed that locating and monitoring populations of Spalding’s catchfly will facilitate the species’ recovery. It is our hope now that the past spirit of cooperation can continue to benefit our natural resources as well as those people who rely on natural resources to make a living.”
Should the Forest Service eventually be required to halt grazing to protect the plant, it would have a serious impact on Wallowa County cattle-raisers and the economy, according to Wallowa County Extension Agent John Williams.
About 50 percent of the cattle in Wallowa County spend some time each year on federal grazing permits. There are 1.3 million acres of federal land in the county, roughly 58 percent of the total area.
“If federal grazing permits went away, the capacity of the Wallowa County’s livestock productions would be reduced significantly,” Williams said. “The livestock industry is the largest percent of the ag income here and agriculture is the largest piece of the economic pie in the county. If you reduce it, then the Wallowa County economy is reduced.”
Unlike other areas of the country, there isn’t abundant private land for cattle grazing.
“Basically the county grazing lands are completely full,” Williams said. “There could be some exchange in an economic sense with hay ground but the value of an acre that is raising hay –– the second largest piece of the ag pie –– is way too much for it to be converted to grazing.”
Fewer than 1,000 catchfly plants are known to exist in the grazing area along the lower Imnaha. The Forest Service renewed grazing permits in 2015 on four winter allotments. Those permits are held by McClaran Ranch, according to legal documents included in the filing.
The Hells Canyon group says it is not asking for an injunction to halt grazing immediately.
About Spalding’s catchfly
Spalding’s catchfly is a small wildflower that ranges from far northeastern Oregon into Washington, Idaho and Montana and just over the border into British Columbia.
“Within our county, it’s found in grasslands from the Leap area to the Snake River country and as far south as Wallowa Lake,” according to a statement from Wallowa Resources in Enterprise.
Spalding’s catchfly, a long lived summer-blooming member of the carnation family with a deep taproot, can be dormant for several years making the species difficult to inventory and monitor.
The plant become rare throughout its range primarily due to cultivation of grasslands for grain farming, Wallowa Resources maintains. The Oregon Department of Agriculture listed Spalding’s catchfly as endangered in 1995. The plant was federally listed as threatened in 2001 and a recovery plan was released in 2007 with the goal of protecting self-sustaining populations.
Both the Greater Hells Canyon Preservation Council statement and the letter from the board of Wallowa Resources can be found in their entirety at wallowa.com