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Know the West

Agency ends cattle grazing at Idaho refuges


Note: This article is a sidebar to one of this issue's feature stories, Can she save ecosystems?

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently revoked grazing privileges at two national wildlife refuges in eastern Idaho and is poised to do the same at two others in the state.

Annual permits to run cattle in the Grays Lake and Camas national wildlife refuges will not be re-issued next year, says Chuck Peck, regional wildlife manager with the Fish and Wildlife Service in Pocatello. The agency will also soon decide when to terminate grazing at the Minidoka and Bear Lake refuges, Peck says. Hay-cutting privileges on the refuges will be restricted in the future as well, he says.

The decision is the direct result of the Interior Department's settlement of a lawsuit brought by environmental groups over incompatible uses at nine refuges, including seven in the West (HCN, 11/15/93). Under the settlement, the agency has a year to modify, eliminate or justify all secondary uses that harm wildlife, as identified by the agency in a 1990 survey.

Local hunters and environmentalists hailed the move. The national wildlife refuges are the "nation's crown jewels established to conserve the country's wildlife," says Jim Waltman, a wildlife specialist with the National Audubon Society. "They were never intended for multiple use."

Eric Krasa, a spokesman for Pheasants Forever in Pocatello, says the Idaho refuges provide important habitat for nesting and migrating waterfowl and game birds. "They're indispensable," says Krasa.

But the 25 ranchers who have grazed cattle on the refuges since the 1960s say some will be forced into bankruptcy. Many feel betrayed since they sold their land to the Fish and Wildlife Service to help create the refuges.

"I finally sold them 400 acres," says Reed Humphrey, a rancher from Grays Lake. "They promised we'd have grazing and haying rights on these lands forever." Humphrey, who has been running cattle on his ranch since 1950, says he'll lose 90 percent of his summer pasture and be forced out of business if he can't graze the refuge.

Peck says that if the ranchers were ever told they could graze on the refuges forever, they were misled. The Fish and Wildlife Service is required by law to manage for the dominant use, he says, which in the case of these refuges is waterfowl production. Any use of the refuge that is incompatible with waterfowl production is illegal.

Grays Lake rancher Dave Smith says he believes grazing is compatible. "I think cattle enhance (bird habitat)." Birds that like tall grass can use ground that hasn't been grazed, while birds that like short grass can use ground that is grazed, Smith says. "They can just pick and choose what they want."

The agency's Peck says cattle might benefit birds in some cases, but not at Grays Lake. "If you graze early in the spring and summer, you get regrowth of the cover, but the problem is you are trampling nests and spooking the birds."

Bill Davidson, former supervisor for the Idaho Fish and Game Department in Pocatello, says grazing can help some species, like geese, while hurting others, like ducks. But until somebody conducts a study that shows grazing helps birds, he says, the cattle should stay off the refuges.

The writer lives in Pocatello, Idaho.