WWP win in Washington state underscores politicized wildlife management

Thurston County Superior Court has ruled in favor of Dr. Steve Herman and Western Watersheds Project deciding that the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) violated the State Environmental Protection Act when issuing grazing permits on its state wildlife areas without undergoing environmental analysis.  The state and Washington Cattleman’s Association had claimed that such analysis was not required as the lands had been grazed in the past under a ‘verbal lease’ – a handshake, and that this arrangement exempted the parties from the need to undergo the analysis.

Court faults Fish and Wildlfie for granting Kittitas grazing leaseYakima Herald-Republic :

Steve Herman, the Thurston County resident who filed the suit on behalf of the Western Watersheds Project, a regional conservation group based in Idaho, called last week’s ruling “a very clear-cut victory for those of us who would preserve some wildlife areas for wildlife.”

Whiskey Dick Wildflowers © Katie Fite, WWP
Whiskey Dick Wildflowers © Katie Fite, WWP (click to view slideshow)

The Whiskey Dick/Quilomene Wildlife Area was acquired by the people of Washington as critical wildlife habitat to preserve steelhead fisheries, big game, and other wildlife including the state-listed Greater Sage-grouse and other sage-steppe obligate species.

Sage Grouse Distribution in Washington State
Sage Grouse Distribution in Washington State(click to enlarge)

The Wildlife Area is particularly critical for Greater Sage-grouse in Washington, whose populations have been significantly diminished given fragmented and degraded habitat, leaving the bird teetering on the brink of extinction in the state.

The Wildlife Area is located directly between the two remaining populations of sage grouse in Washington state, providing a critical link, a habitat corridor.  Grazing the area threatens this habitat, potentially exacerbating the isolation between the two remaining sage-grouse populations.

Previous and continuing grazing, agricultural development, and other habitat fragmenting/degrading activities have eliminated most of the quality sage-steppe wildlife habitat in the state.  Less than 10% of the sage-steppe habitat that once existed in Washington remains.  Dr. Steve Herman alluded to the fate of Columbia Basin pygmy rabbits, another species impacted to extinction by the degradation accompanying grazing on landscapes like those proposed for Whiskey Dick, Quilomene, and other Washington state lands :

I watched while the WDFW grazed one of the best areas – the Sagebrush Flat Wildlife Area – so abusively that much of it was physically destroyed. That was the last place the Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit was found. When that little rabbit was almost gone, it was declared Endangered, and the cattle were finally removed. The last surviving Washington pygmy rabbits were trapped and put into a captive breeding project, where most of them died.

Dr. Herman, a professor emeritus at Evergreen State College, used the Whiskey Dick Wildlife Area as an outdoor classroom, visiting the landscape with his college students as a part of their curriculum.  The visits served to demonstrate what ungrazed, vibrant sage-steppe habitat looks like compared to impacted habitats. The contrast is stark.

WDFW & Governor Gregoire play politics with state wildlife areas in a time of record state deficit

The Governor’s effort to open up the wildlife areas to grazing has been a flagrant political move, an effort to win the support of rural folk in central and eastern Washington.  Gregoire hoped the deal would give her administration the political support of local politicians it claimed necessary to acquire more lands for the state.

But does that end justify this means if what one were to speculatively gain in quantity of habitat elsewhere is lost in diminished quality of habitat on existing state lands ? The question is particularly apt when considering how currently protected/untrammeled sage-steppe is so rare in the state.  And what when nothing ends up being gained ?

With the state of Washington looking at a predicted $6 billion shortfall in the 2009-11 budget, prompting 1000 state employees to forego a pay raise,  the likelihood of the Governor churning wildlife areas into enough political capital to acquire new state lands is more than a stretch.

What’s more, efforts to expand grazing on state lands have aready cost the citizens of Washington a fortune, adding to the deficit in the state :

In November 2005, the department signed an agreement with the cattlemen to launch the experimental [Asotin Wildlife Area] Pilot Grazing Program, allowing the cattlemen to run their cows on public wildlife lands at no charge.

Since 2006, the department spent at least $142,819 on staff time and buying fencing, pipe, troughs and wire to implement the program. In the current budget, the department is set to spend at least $300,000 more on fences, water improvements and monitoring.

Agency staffers have put in nearly 4,000 hours on grazing plans, installing fencing by the mile, herding cattle, attending meetings and monitoring. It’s time that one expert said is taken from other work.

Backward science

In an apologist effort, WDFW has been digging into the bottom of the antiquated livestock-industry-sponsored science bucket – claiming that the grazing has the potential to be a ‘management tool’.  The creative idea goes something like:  ‘Without grazing, the vibrant native bunch-grasses die off and become coarse, less palatable to elk and other game species.  With “well-managed” grazing, the dead grass is removed and elk and other big-game are more able to eat the more tender regrowth.’

Ungrazed Whiskey Dick Wildlife Habitat
Ungrazed Whiskey Dick Wildlife Habitat

Unfortunately, this line of logic doesn’t account for the sound science showing that tall stands of bunch-grass serve as hiding cover for sage-grouse and other wildlife.  Additionally, cows like tender green grass better than the more coarse sage-grouse cover and selectively graze away the green grass first –  clearing the “dead” grass for good-measure, which deprives both big-game and other wildlife species of the forage and habitat.

What’s worse, the WDFW hasn’t figured out how to ensure “well-managed” grazing on Washington wildlife areas.  Two reports conducted following a pilot grazing project on the Asotin Wildlife Area this last summer (2008 ) demonstrate extensive harmful effects to wildlife habitat.

Governor Gregoire and WDFW are trashing some of the last best sage-steppe habitat in the state, putting threatened and endangered species at risk, and using tax-dollars to do so.

It’s not worth it.

Brian Ertz is Media Director for Western Watersheds Project


  1. kt Avatar

    This crazy effort to impose cattle grazing defies all current ecological science. It is a tragedy for wildlife, and agony for the agency biologists who are being forced to lie to justify it, suffering reprimand and censure if they don’t lie, etc. Almost like being a climate scientist in the Bush admin … Only Gregoire is supposed to be a Democrat. One wonders – do the Cattlemen have something on her? Or is there a more complicated story of Gregoire purposefully trying to re-shape the mandate and management paradigm for wildlife habitat areas in Washington to make them more “multiple use/abuse” – and able to be destroyed by any industry that comes down the pike, with wildlife taking a back seat?

    The Governor through WDFW is trying to impose a CRM process (Coordinated Resource Mgmt) group with umpteen agency people and a giant industrial wind farm that holds hands with the single cowboy hand-picked to receive these massive taxpayer subsidies to support grazing here. Basically, they are using the same process (CRM) to impose grazing at Whiskey Dick that drove the Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit to extinction at Sagebrush Flat – as Steve Herman has written about on this Blog so clearly.

    Here at Whiskey Dick, it is the industrial wind farm that was instrumental in ginning up interest for grazing and the CRM.

    SO – I have been wondering lately: Is the ungrazed and irreplaceable shrubsteppe at Whiskey Dick being proposed to be grazed so that it will be destroyed ON PURPOSE? That way no one will care about it. THEN the wind farm will be free to expand their giant disruptive turbines and massive dynamited road network – further into Whiskey Dick wildllfe lands ? And the cowboys win big-time, too. There will be no “reference area” that shows the beauty and biodiversity of ungrazed areas. AND both parties (wind farm and cowboys) will have eliminated the pesky sage grouse for good!

    It might be worth looking into who all with connections to the Gov might benefit from industrialization and multiple abuse being imposed on wildlife areas.

  2. CR Avatar

    I’m working on a GIS/habitat connectivity project in the Washington sage steppe. It is amazing how degraded this ecosystem is and how few people are speaking up for it.

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Brian Ertz