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Contributed By:

Emily Harris

Cows v. Elk v. Wild Horses

OPB | Feb. 20, 2009 9 a.m. | Updated: Sept. 10, 2013 8:49 p.m.

This is a story of cows, elk, and wild horses. And it’s a bigger story about the right to graze on vast tracts of public land.

Its immediate epicenter is Murderers Creek, a stream that slices through the northern end of the Malheur National Forest before it feeds into the south fork of the John Day. Since 1996, Loren and Piper Stout have sent their cattle to graze the spring grass on an allotment along Murderers Creek and nearby Deer Creek. But last spring, they kept their cows off the range; their grazing permit had been temporarily halted by a federal judge.

That injunction came in a suit the Oregon Natural Desert Association brought against the U.S. Forest Service. ONDA claimed the Stout’s cows were trampling the stream bank, muddying the waters for native steelhead. The conservation group said the Forest Service wasn’t doing its job to protect endangered fish.

It’s is a familiar arguement around the West. But Loren Stout’s next step was unconventional. He set out to document the damage wild elk and wild horses do to the rangeland. No cows were on it last year, so it was a perfect opportunity.

After months of measuring grass and taking photographs, the Stouts sued the Forest Service for letting wild horses run free on the rangeland — far more horses than Forest Service policy allows. The Stouts contend that elk and horses do more damage to streams and streambanks than cows do.

At the heart of this case is the question of who should be allowed to graze on public rangeland. Some organizations want to end public grazing, and hope they may gain traction with the new administration and Congress. Some ranchers — including almost a dozen near the proposed Soda Mountain Wilderness in Southern Oregon —  have agreed to give up their permits under certain conditions. But few, if any, support shifting grazing entirely to private land.

Do you ranch, hunt, fish, hike, bike or use ATVs on public land? What have you seen that damages the landscape, particularly streambanks?

Do you graze cattle? Do you run them on public allotments? Can you imagine circumstances when you would voluntarily give up your permit?

If you would like to keep cattle off public lands, what would that be worth to you?

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