Burns Paiute Tribe defends grazing, field irrigation

Jess Wenick

LOGAN VALLEY - It's a balancing act for the Burns Paiute Tribe's wildlife program.

On one side are the rural, ranching-based communities with which the tribe's leaders strive to maintain a strong relationship. On the other side are regional government biologists and environmental groups which scrutinize and often criticize the tribe's use of government money for a multiple-use approach to wildlife mitigation.

In the middle is Jess Wenick, range ecologist for the tribal fish and wildlife program.

"We are separate. We do things very differently," acknowledged Wenick, as he distinguished the Burns Paiute from some of the other 13 tribes directing habitat restoration in the Columbia Basin.

The tribes and other entities use funds from the federal Bonneville Power Administration to improve habitat. Under the 1980 Northwest Power Act, BPA was congressionally mandated to mitigate for dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers through basinwide habitat-restoration projects, Wenick explained in a report to the Grant County Court on Jan. 8

Wenick said the tribe's philosophy values livestock grazing and flood irrigation as tools for habitat restoration. However, these tools often raise eyebrows in urban centers, particularly among the watchdogs of BPA's funding, so the tribe proceeds methodically and cautiously with studies about Eastern Oregon habitat restoration, he said.

"We believe livestock can be grazed in riparian zones, but in this process with Bonneville, because we're being watched by a regional wildlife committee that are mostly urban biologists and environmental groups as well, we're taking baby steps," Wenick said. "We're first establishing that, yes, we can run cattle responsibly on this property in these areas away from the riparian zone."

The Burns Paiute operate three BPA-funded projects in Eastern Oregon - the Malheur River Mitigation Project outside of Juntura, a 7,000-acre ranch with 30,000 acres of cattle-grazed Bureau of Land Management allotments; a cooperative participation in a Malheur River bull trout study; and habitat improvement on the Logan Valley Ranch (formerly the Oxbow) on the west side of Logan Valley between Burns and John Day. The Logan Valley Ranch was Wenick's main point of discussion before the Grant County Court.

"The tribe does not believe that you can buy a piece of property, fence it off, walk away and then it will heal itself, and you call it good. The tribe recognizes that disturbance, irrigation and rest are three valuable tools that we need to use if we're going to meet our objectives," Wenick said.

This concept does not sit well with many environmentalists, he said. A draft management plan for the Logan Valley Ranch, crafted with the input of an advisory committee of agency personnel, environmentalists, private landowners and public representatives, is being contested by environmental groups as the plan undergoes review by a regional wildlife committee in Portland, Wenick said.

"Right now, we're managing the land as if this plan were in place," Wenick added.

John Coombs, a Prairie City rancher who served on the tribe's advisory committee and owns ranch property below the Logan Valley Ranch, said the tribe is on the right track to promote grazing and irrigation as legitimate management approaches.

"I think they're finding out that they need to get the water back on there," he said of the Logan Valley Ranch. "They need to get the water and irrigate that thing or they're not going to get anything out of it. They definitely need grazing."

Coombs said Grant County, plagued by high unemployment, could benefit economically from the tribe raising cattle for a profit on the Logan Valley Ranch.

"They need to put that ground back into production," he said.

Wenick told the Grant County Court that the Burns Paiute's restoration work contributed $641,000 in economic stimulus to Grant, Harney and Malheur counties in 2001; $667,000 in 2002.

Wenick said the tribe is studying grazing from an ecological perspective - plant restoration. On a year-to-year basis, the tribe runs cattle on the Lake Creek side of the property, and he said the results are evident.

Showing a picture of an ungrazed parcel, Wenick said, "This is a picture of one of the plant communities that had not been grazed. As you can see, it's becoming a carpet of dead duff, and that's choking out all the forbs and the other plant species that wildlife need, and in a few more years there's not going to be any standing crop available for nesting wildlife."

The tribe erected an electric fence to create boundary habitats. On one side is the grazed ground, where Wenick said the land yielded fresh regrowth with increased protein for wildlife, while on the other side is an ungrazed section.

Wenick said the grazing experiment prompted resistance, but not as much as another strategy for meadow restoration.

"The most controversial, ironically enough, even more than grazing, is irrigation," Wenick said. "When we first said that we were going to continue to irrigate there was quite an outcry in the region."

However, research in the area of flood irrigation emboldened the tribe to test the results of meadow saturation. Wenick said an Oregon State University doctorate project in Bear Valley, located just to the west, indicated that flood irrigation of land in the spring can yield increased, ground-cooled stream flows in the summer - an apparent win-win for range plants and fish such as the bull trout.

"With this preliminary research, we really have the interest of a lot of the regional fish biologists, what's going to be the outcome of our study. We're basically looking at irrigation, how it impacts the water table versus the breeding growth of plants," Wenick said.

The tribe's project will track two years of non-irrigation, using wells to gather baseline data, and then will study flood irrigation to gauge differences and impacts on stream flow later in season.

"We believe - and there is sufficient research to back up this hypothesis - that there is a point in the summer where we can stop irrigating, the plants will still have enough water to finish their growing cycles, but also there will be enough water in the stream to support the bull trout," Wenick said.

The final ingredient for habitat restoration - rest - was tested in stretches of stream where fencing was erected in riparian areas. Wenick showed slides of riparian areas where sedges began returning shortly after fencing allowed regrowth.

"This just shows you how resilient these wet meadow habitats are and how quickly they respond to management," he concluded.

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