If there was any doubt that the livestock industry is in a fight for its life, the events of recent weeks surely erased such thoughts.
In Eastern Oregon, Grant County ranchers had heard for months that environmental groups were planning to seek new injunctions on Malheur National Forest grazing allotments. Rumor became reality in early April when the Oregon Natural Desert Association, Western Watershed Project, and the Center for Biological Diversity asked a federal judge to halt grazing on six allotments, contending that federal land managers have failed to prevent cattle grazing from harming endangered fish.
The new injunction would affect 17 ranchers and an estimated 250,000 acres of land. The environmentalists filed their request just as ranchers were preparing for a new grazing season, one now in limbo. It also came just as the ranchers' legal defense group, the Five Rivers Grazing Permittees, had worked with forest officials to craft a plan for drastically reduced grazing on two allotments successfully targeted by environmentalists last year.
Attorneys for the ranchers in mid-April asked the federal court to accept the plan and allow some grazing to resume on the Murderers Creek and Lower Middle Fork grazing allotments. Judge Ancer Haggerty, who granted the injunction on the two allotments in May 2008, is expected to consider both the grazing proposal and the request to bar grazing on the additional six allotments at a hearing in June.
Rural communities are watching with concern as events unfold. The ranchers whose operations are at stake are on hold, awaiting the judge's decision. They are hopeful - but as one rancher put it, not optimistic - that there will be a ruling that will enable them to stay in business.
They are also aware that this skirmish is just part of a larger battle.
Consider the report released recently by the environmental group WildEarth Guardians, blaming cattle grazing for the demise of nearly every endangered or threatened creature in the woods. It asked us to believe that cattle are the cause of a host of sins against nature, just about everything except swine flu. Never mind climate change, wrong-headed firefighting policies of the past, juniper encroachment, invasive species - cows, pure and simple, are the problem, we are led to believe. In response, resource managers said the conclusions were simplistic; they stressed that grazing an important tool in the management tool box. While some dismissed the report as extremist, it likely served its purpose - drawing headlines and luring more dollars from urban wallets to fund the fight against grazing.
Such tactics underscore the fact that this situation is about as polarized as any political war could be.
In Grant County, the current legal wrangling dates back six years. The court filings have pitted environmentalist groups against federal agencies, but the ramifications go far beyond the realms of just these parties. Stockmen, landowners, resource agencies, recreationists, and more all claim a personal stake in the outcome.
Among the stakeholders who seem to get short shrift are the rural communities - communities that began dealing with recessionary times long before the current economic collapse. For Grant County, already constrained by a straitjacketed timber industry, the loss of the livestock industry could be a crippling blow.
The impact may seem hard to comprehend for urbanites in populous metro areas. To be sure, cattle ranchers don't hire hundreds of shift workers, but each may take on a few ranchhands or a part-timer or two to handle seasonal ranch work in a county where every single job is critical. They hire local contractors to build fences, dig ditches, and maintain buildings. They spend needed dollars at feed stores, building supply places, tire stores, auto repair shops and more. The impacts ripple through the local economy; stifle them and the entire county will suffer.
It would be tragic if litigation forced the cattle ranchers out of business and pushed communities a step closer toward ghost towns, but it's not an unimaginable scenario. It's time to look for creative solutions that work for the both fish and people. The ranchers are doing that with their grazing compromise; the question remains as to whether theirs will be the only voice of reason in the courtroom in June.