A Cattle Industry and Local Control Power Grab: Inside the Malheur Owyhee Public Lands Bill

In early November, Oregon Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley introduced the Malheur County Empowerment for the Owyhee Act, an astonishingly awful public lands and wilderness Bill. It is aimed at enriching ranchers and other local interests. It is the Vale Project reborn from the weed wastelands and wildlife deserts that were generated by that boondoggle project decades ago. The Vale Project was a massive 1960s-1980s federal bailout of these very same Malheur County welfare ranchers. They had rapaciously depleted the “range” and were facing major grazing cuts. Now they’ve done it again. Cheatgrass, medusahead and other weeds caused by their cattle are overrunning public lands and desertification is growing.

The Malheur Bill is being promoted on the Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA) website. It gives primacy to ranchers. It shovels approximately 1.5 billion dollars to prop up grazing, and to expand many kinds of largely motorized recreational pursuits. The costs of implementing the livestock and vegetation manipulation projects the Bill would set in motion are not revealed. That’s a whole other shoe to drop. It sets up a special oversight group (Malheur CEO Group) that will exert power over public lands management. The wording of the legislation establishes the rancher’s expectations that they will get permanence for their bloated herds, and pretty much anything else they want. The Bill specifically allows for large stocking increases.

The Malheur Community Empowerment for Owyhee Group (with the hubristic acronym “CEO Group”) and an Advisory Group under the CEO wing would oversee monitoring of land condition and grazing impacts and would promote cattle and vegetation manipulation projects and “research” under the Bill. The CEO Group can incestuously appoint its members to the Advisory Group. Environmentalists have no way to effectively be ensured even a single seat at this “table” in the future.

It seems that no lessons were learned by ONDA from its bitter experience with the Steens Mountain Advisory Council (SMAC), a local-dominated group legislated under the 2000 Steens Oregon Bill wilderness. The SMAC has acted in opposition to environmental interests throughout its existence. The Sierra Club chronicled:

The Steens Act mandated that a 12-member Steens Mountain Advisory Council (SMAC) be formed to advise the BLM on implementation and management of Steens. Only two members of the council are “environmental representatives” … The four local landowners on the council have killed every motion to limit motorized access to wilderness inholdings.

Compounding the problem, sixteen of the 20 SMAC meetings have been held at the BLM office in Harney County … Thus, the BLM has heard a disproportionate number of anti-wilderness voices … Asked why meetings aren’t held in more populous parts of the state, Sutherland replies: “A rancher who sits on the council likes to say, ‘Steens belongs to us. When they move Steens to Portland, we’ll hold a meeting there.’”

The Malheur Bill apparatus is the SMAC on steroids. Portions of the Bill are also similar to the original language of the Idaho Owyhee Initiative proposal. An Idaho Owyhee wilderness Bill was eventually passed as the Owyhee Public Lands Management Act in 2009. The earlier draft Idaho Owyhee language was so bad that Democratic staffers in Congress required it be greatly greatly revised before it was introduced. However, the draft Idaho Owyhee language is what Idaho rancher expectations are still based on to this day. That Bill set up an Owyhee oversight group that includes the green groups who promoted the Bill and have been captured by it. The green groups remain silent on livestock degradation across Owyhee County. For example, several years ago, the Wilderness Society and Idaho Conservation League co-signed a letter with ranchers pleading with BLM not to cut cow numbers on highly degraded allotments violating land health standards – including inside wilderness areas. They’ve abandoned concern for the WSA lands that the Bill released, and have been silent on BLM’s ecocidal destruction of ancient forests in released Juniper Mountain WSAs.

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Algae plumes in Antelope Creek in the Upper West Little Owyhee WSA.

Public Lands Chokehold of CEO and Advisory Groups

The Malheur Bill legislates:

The Malheur CEO Group shall consist of 13 members, of whom— (i) 6 shall be representatives of ranching businesses in the County;(ii) 6 shall be representatives of other businesses or conservation or recreation organizations, of whom 2 shall reside in the County; and (iii) 1 shall be a representative of the Burns Paiute Tribe. Members of the Malheur CEO Group shall be appointed by the Secretary, with advice from—(I) the manager of the Vale District of the Bureau;(II) any Member of the House of Representatives who represents a district in which the Federal land is located; and (III) the Governor of the State of Oregon.

What could possibly go wrong here? Greg Walden is the current Representative. Though he isn’t running again, his replacement is likely to be another anti-public lands zealot bonded with cattlemen. Oregon Gov Kate Brown’s environmental record is sketchy in the face of controversy, as shown by her Game Department’s unending wolf killing for ranchers, and her recent capitulation to the Farm Bureau selling out small streams across the state.

The Malheur CEO Group shall review each project proposed to the Bureau by members of the Malheur CEO Group, ranchers holding grazing permits on the Federal land, or other members of the public to be carried out using the analysis completed by a programmatic environmental impact statement. This means that any livestock projects a rancher dreams up, no matter how outrageous, would be reviewed. The CEO Group is to engage in early and continuous coordination with appropriate officials of land management agencies in the County in recommending projects consistent with purposes of this Act. This further enshrines County Coordination preached by the Wise Use movement, the Owyhee Initiative’s Fred Kelly Grant, and other county supremacists.

The Malheur CEO Group may propose a project to the Secretary if the project has been approved by a majority of the members voting at an official meeting of the Malheur CEO Group.

Cattle projects are highly likely to get carried forward.

On request of the Malheur CEO Group, the Secretary may detail, with or without reimbursement, any of the personnel of the Department of the Interior to assist the Malheur CEO Group. BLM staff will essentially be working for the CEO Group. They may not even get paid.

The CEO Group is exempted from FACA, legislation passed to try to shine daylight on backroom deals and corruption related to bodies like the CEO Group.

Bell Spring “developed” in the Vale Project era. All the spring water was removed from the headwater spring area, piped to a cow trough, then dumped out to become a trampled mire.

The Malheur Bill Kills Site-Specific NEPA Review to Ram Projects Through Under a Programmatic EIS Based on Adaptive Management

The Malheur Bill is based on “Adaptive Management” to be carried out under a Programmatic EIS. The PEIS will negate the need for project-specific environmental analysis. The PEIS will be cover for the CEO group and ranchers claiming the public years ago had a chance to weigh in, as they plow ahead with projects under the PEIS umbrella. The Bill slams the door on any project-specific review. It is naive to think that enviros can control the EIS process or the all projects under it. With two Democratic Senators for the ranchers to go cry to invested in the legislation – good luck in getting a future Administration to rein in the ranchers. The PEIS and its adaptive management scheme solves the problem of accountability and of the public having a voice in what goes down across these public lands.

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Massive headcut in eroding sage-grouse meadow in Upper West Little Owyhee WSA. Desertification at an epic scale.

Climate Hypocrisy

Posts on Sen. Merkley’s Website show him embracing the green new deal and portraying himself as a climate champion. You can’t be a climate champion and not recognize that cattle are destroying biodiversity and wild ecosystems across the globe, are causing rampant desertification and weed proliferation, and are exacerbating the climate crisis. The Malheur ranchers that this Bill elevates are at the forefront of causing rampant desertification and destroying fish and wildlife habitats. Oregon’s Senators are rewarding their abuses with this anti-public lands Bill. Given Wyden’s past legislative attacks on forests on public lands and processes, it isn’t surprising that he is at the helm of the Malheur Bill.

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As the watershed dies: New erosional scouring and head-cutting in meadow by Antelope Creek in Upper West Little Owyhee WSA. These degraded Owyhee systems are highly vulnerable to runoff erosion.

Pseudo-wilderness? Quid Pro Quo wilderness? Wilderness-Lite?

I’m at a loss what to call lands that are termed wilderness under the Malheur Bill. The wilderness areas would be subject to massive human intervention and manipulation using fire and/or invasive species as justification. The Bill allows for the Interior Secretary to undertake “any activities necessary for control of fire, insect, and disease”. This means woody vegetation “treatments” like mowing and roller-beating intact sage communities, juniper mastication, jackpot burning, broadcast burning ignited by aerial napalming, herbicide spraying, grasshopper insecticide spraying, scorched earth targeted grazing and all around increased grazing could be inflicted on the wilderness using “range science” rationales. Ranchers would finagle increased grazing by claiming that cows eating the cheatgrass caused by their herds would control fires, or that grass seeding projects claimed to control weeds had resulted in a forage boom.

Project-specific “minimum requirements” analyses to help protect wilderness values from impairment by project activity under the PEIS are rejected. Also, a 300 ft. swath can be cut into the wilderness area bordering roads – which would enable things like sagebrush destruction followed by more crested wheat and forage kochia seeding and herbicide use touted under recent fuelbreak proposals.

Heavy Hand of Man. The Bill states: the Secretary may carry out any activities in the wilderness areas that the Secretary determines to be necessary for the control and manipulation of invasive species, including—

(i) the use of nonnative species in areas in which native species cannot be grown to adequately compete with non- native species; and

(ii) the manipulation of vegetation, including through chemical, biological, and mechanical means—

(I) to control nonnative species; or (II) as part of restoration activities, if natural processes alone cannot recover the ecological health of an area.

The bludgeoning hand of man, grind of heavy equipment, and strong stench of herbicide will be inescapable in this wilderness! Despite a separate element of the Bill referring to a native seed warehouse, it allows use of non-native species in restoration projects. Nothing says wilderness and restoration like endless expanses of two feet tall dense flammable crested wheatgrass seedings where the main wildlife species is the Deer Mouse.

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Pea green algae, manure and urine water in erosion scoured, unraveling Tent Creek. Lookout Butte WSA.

Malheur Bill Dramatically Cuts Owyhee Wilderness Acres that ONDA Has Long Championed

In 2015, The Oregonian reported on a proposed Owyhee National Conservation Area and Wilderness proposal (which later morphed into a Monument proposal towards the end of the Obama presidency) and the conservationist quest for designation of 2,000,000 acres of Wilderness:

The Owyhee Coalition’s proposal would bring permanent protection to the Owyhee River country in southeastern Oregon, designating approximately 2 million acres as wilderness within a 2.5-million-acre National Conservation Area. It would also designate more than 50 miles of waterways in the Owyhee drainage as federally protected wild and scenic rivers.

The 2019 Malheur Bill contains a mere 1,133,481 acres of wilderness. It casts aside nearly all the hard won Citizen Wilderness Inventory Units. For well over a decade, ONDA had led many volunteers and several environmental groups in inventorying around 1.5 million acres of wilderness-worthy lands on top of the 1,273,015 acres of BLM WSAs. Due to litigation hanging over Vale BLM’s head, BLM had agreed to treat the Citizen inventoried units as WSAs. BLM’s move was then used by ONDA as a reason to not pursue much further grazing or other litigation in Vale country.

A 2018 ONDA newsletter describes how citizen inventories found 1.5 million acres more wilderness-worthy lands in the Malheur country than had been included in BLM WSAs, and refers to a Vale BLM report largely agreeing with ONDA’s citizen inventory findings which found that 1.2 million met the Lands with Wilderness Characteristics bar. The Malheur Bill kicks all that citizen volunteer effort to the curb and abandons it. This map displays the 2,579,032 acre wilderness area recently sought by ONDA/the Owyhee Coalition in Malheur County.

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A map in the agricultural newspaper Capital Press shows the puny 2019 Wyden-Merkley Malheur wilderness proposal. Wyden and Merkley made previous aborted efforts at some type of Malheur Bill.

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Tent Creek treated like a cattle feedlot, Lookout Butte WSA. Even in the cold November air, it emanated a foul odor.

Vale Project Déjà Vu

The 1960s-1980s Vale Project is notorious among public lands grazing activists for its wanton waste and destruction of sagebrush wildlife habitat it inflicted across Malheur County and the canyonlands. It was funded by special large federal appropriations shepherded through Congress by Oregon Senators Wayne Morse and Al Ullman, bailing out public land ranchers facing major stock cuts.

BLM waged a ground and air War of landscape-level destruction on sagebrush across 500,000 acres of the most grass-productive deep soil sites. Habitats and watersheds suffered enormously. BLM killed sagebrush with a huge aerial herbicide campaign of toxic 2,4-D and diesel. At the same time the U.S. government was destroying the forests of Vietnam with Agent Orange, it was also poisoning the sagebrush wild lands of Malheur County. Strip spray lines are still visible in many places 60 years later. BLM also plowed up sage and burned vast areas. This was often followed by dense exotic crested wheatgrass seedings. Sage-grouse and other wildlife habitat was further ripped apart and fragmented by building a plethora of new livestock water facilities, new fencing and more roads for rancher access ease.

In 1988, Vale Project cheerleader Heady summarized some of the explosion of livestock facilities constructed under the Vale Project up to that point:

+2,334 miles of new fence were built (similar to the distance the tax dollar subsidies flowed from Washington DC to Vale). How many Sage-grouse have died colliding with these fences? How many Mule Deer and Antelope have died entangled while trying to cross?

+442 miles of new cattle water pipelines. Pipelines are ripped across sagebrush uplands to feed water troughs surrounded by large new zones of grazing depletion and weeds. They facilitate what is essentially livestock forage mining. As a result, once secure Sage-grouse nesting habitat and dense Pygmy Rabbit sage became incrementally destroyed by cattle breakage and chronic grazing and trampling damage.

+429 spring projects. Heavy equipment dug into the heart of wild land springs and gutted them, sucking out water for cow pipelines in uplands. This often captured every drop of spring water in a pipe, causing surface flows and the vital riparian and meadow habitat they support to dry up.

+510 stock water troughs. Birds, bats, lizards and small mammals drown in livestock water troughs, which are fed by spring development pipelines or wells drilled for cattle water. Ugly Vale Project well tanks blight scenic vistas in many areas of the high desert. The wells facilitated heavy livestock use in previously minimally grazed areas.

A vintage BLM flick extols the Vale Project’s virtues. The red and white herefords have now been replaced by heavier black Angus type cows that are even harder on the land.

Debra Donahue in The Western Range Revisited writes: “Holechek and Hess have related the incredible story of the BLM’s Vale Range Rehabilitation program. From 1963 through the early 1990s the BLM spent the equivalent of $304,000 in 1992 dollars per rancher to try to reclaim the heavily overgrazed range in this area of … Oregon”.

Holechek and Hess penned a letter on the Vale Project to High Country News: “In the Vale District of southeastern Oregon, public ranges were overgrazed by an estimated 40 percent by 1963. Rather than suffer cuts in their permits, ranchers joined with the BLM and Oregon State University to lobby Congress for massive federal dollars for major range “reclamation.” All told, over $56 million (1992 dollars) was spent to keep 184 ranchers and their permits afloat. Despite this, and enough new grass to support 17,000 head of cattle, the Vale project is now in ecological shambles. Overstocking worked as long as federal dollars were paying to chain and spray the range and keep the effects of overgrazing at bay. But when the money stopped flowing, things fell apart. Last year, the project reached rock bottom; Vale ranchers received $30,000 to $50,000 apiece in emergency feed payments to make up for the grass that their overgrazed public and private ranges could no longer grow”.

Who knows how much more these same Vale ranchers have continued to reap from federal drought and other subsidies since 1992? The Malheur Bill provides a mechanism for a new explosion of livestock facilities and forage projects dubbed “restoration”. The Bill’s flowery paragraphs on ecology and restoration must be read with an understanding of how agencies and industry twist language to justify projects that often do the opposite of what they are claimed to be doing. What logging, sage destruction or PJ killing project these days isn’t termed “restoration”?

The Bill appropriates these sums over 10 years: $100,000,000 range monitoring and enforcement; $100,000,000 soil and vegetation surveys. A glaring omission is any actual specific appropriations for carrying out the massive project costs of the range projects under the Bill. Those costs are likely to dwarf these and other costs and the nearly billion dollars of primarily motorized recreation largesse. The projects that would be carried out are not even accounted for in the Bill.

BLM utilization cage on Tent Creek placed by BLM around 15 years ago. There is around a foot more soil inside the cage than outside. The sedges are 18”-24” tall inside vs. an inch tall outside.

Recreation Pork and Other Provisions

I’ll leave it to others to dissect the impacts of the recreation frills, roads, sheriff’s department, and other development pork slathered onto the Bill – totaling around a billion dollars over 10 years. Here is what nearly a billion dollars (10 million dollars per year from 2020 to 2030) of public funds would be spent on:

$100,000,000 on four Loop Roads (big all weather access roads will be used by ranchers to press for year-round grazing), $100,000,000 for a Rails to Trails study, $100,000,000 for “Gateway to Oregon” tourist promotion, $100,000,000 for Jordan Valley airstrip improvements for firefighting, $100,000,000 for two new marinas on Owyhee Reservoir, $100,000,000 for a paddle bar (fake rapids, or beer?), $100,000,000 for state park improvements, $100,000,000 for hostelries and bunkhouses (pity the Packrats facing eviction as shacks are upgraded to posh digs at taxpayer expense), $100,000,000 for improvements to private camps on Owyhee Reservoir, $100,000,000 for a Dude Ranch at BLM’s Birch Creek site, $100,000,000 to ARS for a Native Seed Center. Some of these huge sums are for a “feasibility study” and not the actual project.

The two marinas, a paddle bar and other rec playground development is focused around the livestock manure, sediment and mercury polluted waters of Owyhee Reservoir . $6 million would be used for improvements on the Owyhee Dam road after which Malheur County gets to charge the public a toll for use of this road. The Bill references “biochar” but fails to explain what is planned. It doles out $100,000,000 to County law enforcement. Much of the largesse appears aimed at buying off and enriching critics of land protection in the County.

It includes a $70,000,000 Tribal grant, and other provisions related to the Burns-Paiute Tribe. Legislation for empowerment of Tribal interests and cultural protections can certainly be done in a way that is not hitched to sprawling anti-public lands legislation that feeds the Climate Crisis.

APHIS, best known for its carbaryl, malathion and dimilin (a chitin inhibitor) insecticide spraying of Grasshoppers and Mormon crickets on public lands is to get $10,000,000. It sounds like this sum is for experimental work with fungus or bacteria annual grass controls. It’s counter-productive to promote cheatgrass-killing biological agents in a Bill that cements in weed-producing grazing on public lands.

Owyhee Wild and Scenic River Suit

The Oregon Owyhee is home to 187.2 miles of designated Wild and Scenic River segments. The wild country of the Owyhee River (120 miles), North Fork Owyhee River (9.6 miles) and my favorite the near-slot canyon West Little Owyhee River (57.6 miles) in the Oregon Owyhee have been designated Wild and Scenic Rivers since the 1980s. Legend has it that years ago a NOLS group attempted hiking down the West Little Owyhee and was driven out by rattlesnakes. The Malheur Bill would designate only a 14-mile river segment below Owyhee Dam as a Recreational River. It appears to amend WSR language with special grazing provisions for this segment. In 2002, BLM found that portions of Dry Creek, Antelope Creek and the North Fork Malheur totaling 28.5 miles met the Wild River criteria. They are absent from the Bill.

A decade after the Oregon Owyhee WSR designations, Vale BLM had still failed to control cattle damage to the Outstandingly Remarkable Wild River Values. Cattle-accessible streamside areas remained manure-fields. Led by Bill Marlett of ONDA, several environmental groups sued BLM and got the cows removed from the river corridors.

“In this lawsuit filed by five conservation groups (the Oregon Natural Desert Association, the Committee for Idaho’s High Desert, Idaho Watersheds Project, the Oregon Natural Resources Council, and the Oregon Wildlife Federation), Judge Redden had ruled earlier that the BLM was in violation of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act for failure to analyze the effects of livestock grazing on the special attributes of the Owyhee River and several tributaries in Oregon.

Judge Redden stated: “continued degradation (by livestock) of the areas of concern within the river corridor constitutes irreparable harm” The Judge also concluded that the economic effects of the injunction would not be irreparable and would constitute a “negligible” overall effect of the income in Malheur County, Oregon”.

The Court ordered: “The BLM has previously closed certain areas to grazing but then allowed the affected permittees to add their herds to those grazing in other areas. The court therefore concludes that only the complete elimination of permits for a certain number of animal unit months (“AUMs”) will prevent the possibility that cattle will be removed from one degraded area only to increase grazing pressure elsewhere.

I wrote Declarations for this lawsuit and attended the Portland WSR suit hearing argued by Stephanie Parent. ONDA’s wonderful ecologist Joy Belsky, who wrote a great series of grazing review articles, was there too. Karen Budd-Falen, now a controversial Trump Interior appointee who has long represented scofflaw public lands ranchers, was the Cattlemen’s attorney. Budd-Falen positioned a group of children dressed in cowboy regalia in a prominent place in the courtroom – to no avail.

Never did I dream that 20 years later anything remotely resembling this Trumpian Malheur Bill would have the imprimatur of Oregon environmental groups. The types of irreparable harm and degradation that Judge Redden recognized to be taking place within the WSR areas continues unabated and is ubiquitous across the cattle-battered riparian areas outside the WSRs. It would be grandfathered into the wilderness areas designated under the Bill.

A pile of hay Description automatically generated A foot of topsoil has eroded away in the area surrounding this BLM utilization cage in a dying West Little Owyhee Sage-grouse meadow and spring complex.

Subsidized Cows Forever

The Bill sets up a system to enshrine public lands ranching and pour apparently unlimited federal subsidies into propping up ranchers. Bill language includes: to protect the cultural resources and western traditions for which the Federal land is known; to maintain grazing on the Federal land; for the economic well-being of the County. The ag. economic powerhouse of the County is all the irrigated row crop land near Ontario, and not public lands grazing.

… to address the management uncertainties on the Federal land to provide greater stability of natural resource management on the Federal land. “Stability” is rancher code for never cutting a single AUM. The Bill also references “flexibility”, which translates as no required grazing schedule or standards are required to be met.

…to promote and foster cooperation, communication, and understanding, and reduce conflict, among all users of the Federal land. Conflict means there is public engagement and a diversity of opinions. Conflict is democratic. This is code telling ranchers that enviro groups will never sue them again over grazing here.

… builds inclusivity in the County by promoting the involvement of local grazing allotment holders, institutions of higher education, volunteers, Federal agencies, and other interested parties in the Monitoring Network while standardizing data collection; Translation: The Range Dept. at Oregon State, the USDA Ag Extension Center in Burns, NRCS and cattle industry consultants will be directing (and biasing) monitoring and research in favor of the ranchers in support of AUM increases.

Outrageously, the Bill allows Suspended AUMs (over-allocated “paper” cows and sheep that have not been able to be grazed for many years because there was never enough forage to support them in the first place) to be grazed on public lands after “improvements” are made: Suspended Animal Unit Months. The Secretary shall restore for use by a holder or user of a grazing permit any animal unit months held by that holder or user that were suspended, in a quantity commensurate with the carrying capacity of the relevant land, as determined by the Secretary, if monitoring data shows that the holder or user is in substantial compliance with— (aa) the applicable management plan; and the use of flexible management granted by a programmatic environmental impact statement.

Improved Carrying Capacity. The Secretary shall consider increasing the quantity of animal unit months held by a holder or user of a grazing permit if monitoring data shows an increased carrying capacity on the relevant land.

Here’s how easily a rancher will get increased grazing: The rancher proposes a project to seed crested wheatgrass, a smattering of native grass and a sprinkle of sage seed and put in more cow water projects to maximize exploitation. The rancher gets the CEO group’s blessing. Federal $$$ flow. Voila – soon more grass “production” is monitored, increased “carrying capacity” is found, and AUMs are increased to an unsustainable level. The Bill also apparently aspires to its own specially tailored additional “grazing regulations” through the PEIS: A programmatic environmental impact statement under subparagraph (A) shall supplement, and not supplant, existing grazing regulations.

The Bill uses “Invasive Species” problems perpetuated and caused by livestock grazing as an excuse to justify radical intervention in plant communities inside and outside wilderness. The management of invasive species through the use, as the Secretary determines to be appropriate, of available tools, including—(I) mechanical tools;(II) hand tools; (III) chemical tools (lavish $$$ for Monsanto-Bayer and their ilk just like Owyhee BLM’s 67 million dollar Soda Fire boondoggle). (IV) biological tools; and (V) livestock for varied season. The latter enshrines use of cows any time under the guise of eating cheatgrass – and is sure to generate an ever-expanding supply of cheatgrass and extra AUMs for ranchers.

The Bill refers to the maintenance of existing water infrastructure; the improvement including movement of existing water infrastructure; the protection of existing water infrastructure. The immense system of existing cow water infrastructure greatly harms wildlife habitat by causing wide zones of depletion of upland sage communities. “Maintenance” includes digging even deeper into springs, exporting more water, etc. BLM typically exercises some degree of oversight on “maintenance”. This Bill will be used by the ranchers to weaken that oversight.

Ostensibly for wildlife, the Bill includes: Offsite water development. This will result in a new proliferation of pipelines ripping through uplands. Wildlife-friendly fencing. There is no such thing. Vegetation management. This will mean calling any project to thin or reduce sagebrush or kill junipers and other native woody vegetation and generate more cow grass a wildlife project aimed at saving Sage-grouse or big game.

It also includes: the maintenance of existing roads, if that maintenance does not constitute an improvement amounting to a new road category. BLM road categories are broad. The current Tri-state Fuelbreaks DEIS includes large road upgrades in southern Malheur County, and refers to a several decades old Vale BLM road EA as the basis for road management.

No public lands Bill in cow country would be complete without specifically targeting arid forest trees as disposable weeds: the removal of juniper where ecologically appropriate for the benefit of improving or conserving ecological function.

The closest the Malheur Bill comes to grazing permit buyouts/retirement or any permanent closure of grazing allotments is vague reference to passive restoration and other oblique wording.

Any Bill that perpetuates livestock grazing in the Oregon Owyhee flies in the face of ecological and climate science. It would progressively destroy what’s left of wild ecosystems that are at the heart of any real Wilderness. Removal of livestock from this landscape is desperately needed for Sage-grouse and other wildlife persistence in the Owyhee region. Sage-grouse have already been largely eliminated from many areas of Malheur County. Much of the northern and mid Oregon Owyhee is highly degraded, and weeds increase with each passing grazing year. Populations are going down, down, down in the places the birds are still are found.

Following are more images of what grazing does to the land and water in the heart of the best block of remaining sage-grouse habitat in Malheur County – found in the West Little Owyhee country.

Kill this Bill!

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Water development completely dries up a spring by exporting all water to this trough and surrounding muck hole. There is no wildlife escape ladder to save birds and small animals that may fall into the trough.

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Cow caused desertification: A dying head-cutting Sage-grouse meadow in the Upper West Little Owyhee WSA.

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Another area of Jack Creek in the Upper West Little Owyhee WSA. These areas that are so essential for the Sage-grouse and Antelope and are being destroyed with each passing year’s pounding by cattle.

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A downed fence on Jack Creek built following the WSR lawsuit ruling to keep cows out of the downstream area (right of photo) and from drifting on down into the WSR. The Malheur Bill would expend unknown sums upgrading existing cattle water and fencing. The fact is that knowing and purposeful rancher neglect has contributed greatly to the current “problems”. Exclosure fencing is a tangle of downed wires. Even simple “float” devices to limit water waste at cow troughs are ignored. It appears to be a badge of honor among Malheur Owyhee ranchers to not have wildlife escape ladders in water tanks.

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Pygmy Rabbit burrows in remnant dense sage area with great microbiotic crusts that escaped the ravages of the Vale Project – Citizen Wilderness Inventory area of the West Little Owyhee. This is sagebrush so dense it’s hard to walk through – the kind that range “scientists” lust to destroy because it’s not “productive”. Current NRCS Ecosite and other models are being used to justify supposed sage “restoration” projects that destroy sagebrush patches old and dense enough for Pygmy Rabbits to live in. The Malheur Bill poses a grave threat to the pockets of habitat like this that remain.

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Big sagebrush the Vale Project did not destroy. Upper West Little Owyhee WSA. Relentless cattle grazing across the uplands tramples and destroys microbiotic crusts, depletes native understory grasses and forbs, and batters and breaks off sagebrush. As a result, cheatgrass is starting to invade. If cattle grazing continues in the West Little Owyhee uplands, the last best hope for Sage-grouse in Malheur County will die.

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Katie Fite is a biologist and Public Lands Director with WildLands Defense.