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Capital Press March 2014

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Ranchers worried about ruling on waste control

By                           The Spokesman-Review
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Photo ByTyler Tjomsland

Bill Demers is a small-time rancher, grazing three cows on 65 acres of rolling pasture in south Spokane County.

It’s a job the retired juvenile court officer relishes. Demers’ cows – Sophie, Ginger Snap and Pistol Annie – trailed him as he drove a small tractor over the land this week, pointing out improvements that he’s made since moving there six years ago.

A healthy layer of sod grows on formerly bare ground adjacent to the North Fork of Stevens Creek. Demers re-established the grass cover by keeping his cows out of the intermittently flowing creek when there’s water in it. But he fears that state water quality requirements eventually will force him to fence off the creek, which he said would cost about $12,000 for a farming operation that nets $1,500 or less each year.

“It would put me out of business,” Demers said.

Fencing and water have always been hot topics in the rural West, and Friday was no different as 100 ranchers met to talk about how a recent state Supreme Court ruling might affect their livelihoods.

In the case involving Dayton rancher Joseph Lemire, the state’s high court affirmed the Washington Department of Ecology’s authority to regulate livestock pollution in streams.

The agency had ordered Lemire to put up fencing to keep his cows from trampling the banks of Pataha Creek and keep manure out of the water. The August court ruling also said the plaintiffs didn’t demonstrate that the fencing requirement qualified as a “taking” of private property.

“For landowners, this is a very big deal,” said Hal Meenach, president of the Spokane County Farm Bureau. “Areas close to waterways are the best pasture that a cattleman has. If they lose it, it’s a huge loss in the number of cattle that their land can support. With the Lemire ruling, it’s not considered a taking.”

Ranchers said they’re worried that the ruling will lead to aggressive enforcement.

Since the ruling, the Ecology Department has sent out “a wave” of letters to ranchers, telling them their cows are polluting streams, said Toni Meecham, president of the nonprofit Washington Agriculture Legal Foundation, who represented Lemire.

However, “this is nothing new that Ecology has this authority,” said Rachael Paschal Osborn, a water attorney and adjunct professor at Gonzaga University’s law school.

She said the ruling affirmed the state’s broad authority to regulate discharge into streams, including pollution sources such as cattle.

“Water is a public resource,” Osborn said. “Cows in streams can be very damaging to the ecology.” Taking the position that livestock should be allowed in creek bottoms regardless of impact isn’t reasonable, she said.

The Department of Ecology has been working to reduce livestock’s effect on streams for about 12 years, said Chad Atkins, a water quality specialist for the agency.

When livestock operations aren’t managed properly, they’re a source of coliform bacteria, excess nutrients and sediment in waterways, he said. They can also alter water temperature and pH.

Ecology officials look for visual evidence that livestock are affecting streams, such as bare ground, eroded banks, manure piles and extended livestock access to the water.

But Atkins said it’s rare for the state to take regulatory action against a livestock operator. Usually, the department’s employees and ranchers can work together to find solutions, he said.

“Good water quality and a healthy livestock industry aren’t mutually exclusive. You can have both,” Atkins said.

The regulatory action against Lemire came after years of inaction by the rancher, whose practices had been identified 10 years ago for having negative effects on Pataha Creek’s water quality.

State and federal programs can help ranchers pay for fencing and sources for watering cattle away from streams, Atkins said. But if ranchers take the money, they have to agree to leave buffers of streamside vegetation that cows can’t access.

Beginning in July, one grant program will require 75-foot buffers around salmon-bearing streams.

Osborn, the water attorney, said she wouldn’t be surprised to see legislative proposals next year to weaken the Ecology Department’s ability to regulate water pollution from cow pastures.

That’s indeed in the works, said Meecham, the attorney hired by Lemire. Fundraising is also underway to hire an Oregon State University range specialist, who would be available to consult with ranchers who are told their operations are harming water quality, she said.

In addition, ranchers want DNA testing of coliform bacteria, to indicate whether it’s coming from livestock or wildlife, Meecham said. Fencing cattle out of creeks increases habitat for rodents and birds, which can actually increase coliform bacteria levels, she said.

Demers, the rancher with three cows who organized the Spokane County Cattlemen’s Association meeting, isn’t sure where all this leaves him.

He’s in the Hangman Creek watershed, which has high levels of coliform bacteria and sediment in the water.

Six other livestock owners in the Hangman watershed have received notices from the Department of Ecology, saying that their practices are hurting water quality. Demers said he expects to get a notice, too.

And yet Demers, a 4-H instructor, said he’s a good caretaker of the land. He’s hauled junk vehicles out of the creek, along with old lumber and other debris. During the seasons when cows have access to the dry creek bed, he uses a hand shovel to remove the cow pies. The manure is stashed where the runoff won’t reach the creek, he said.

Each patch of ground is familiar to Demers, who recites the history of his efforts to get forage grass re-established there. He’s protective of the turf that keeps erosion from running into the creek. That’s something most ranchers share, Demers said.

“We’re grass farmers first,” he said.

At issue

• The ruling:                The state Supreme Court affirmed the Washington Department of Ecology’s authority to regulate livestock pollution in streams.

• The reaction:                Ranchers are worried the ruling will lead to aggressive enforcement, including costly fencing requirement

Endangered claim for White Bluffs bladderpod questioned

By Geoff Folsom, Tri-City Herald         

                                    The White Bluffs bladderpod doesn’t really exist.

That’s according to the results of a DNA test, funded largely by area farmers. The results of the test were announced Monday, the last day of a public comment period for the White Bluffs bladderpod’s proposed endangered species listing.

About $25,000 was collected to pay for DNA research on the White Bluffs bladderpod at the University of Idaho, Franklin County Commissioner Brad Peck said Monday. Many area farmers sought to disprove the belief that the yellow flowering plant grows only in an area along the Columbia River in Franklin County.

Farmers fear the declaration of critical habitat for the plant could affect their ability to irrigate or cultivate their fields.

West Richland agronomist Stuart Turner, with permission from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, collected three bladderpod samples along the White Bluffs, to compare with bladderpod samples taken from five Washington counties, as well as one sample each from Idaho and Oregon.

University of Idaho  DNA expert Cort Anderson’s research determined there was no genetic deviation between the White Bluffs bladderpod and the other samples — meaning genetically it is the same as the common Douglas’s bladderpod.

Turner said that means the plant is not endangered and that Fish and Wildlife has no legal basis to push forward with its endangered species listing for the bladderpod, which would declare up to 419 acres of private land near the Hanford Reach National Monument in Franklin County as critical habitat.

“They were 100 percent matches,” Turner said. “Normally, if you hit about 96 percent, you think they are a very close match. When you hit a 100 percent match, it means they are the same species.”

Turner said Anderson worked on DNA studies for Fish and Wildlife in the past.

Peck questioned why Fish and Wildlife wouldn’t do its own DNA test. He said the test commissioned at the University of Idaho was an exhaustive one, but Fish and Wildlife could have done a more simple test for around $5,000, a fraction of the more than $600,000 it is spending on the process of listing the White Bluffs bladderpod.

“The federal government has an obligation to get the best available science,” Peck said after a news conference at the courthouse. “It’s shameful that we had to do Fish and Wildlife’s job for them. We certainly hope that, from this experience, they will go forward and do this type of testing elsewhere, so that other communities don’t have to go through the same nonsense we’ve encountered.”

Brad Thompson, listing and recovery division manager for Fish and Wildlife’s state office, said the agency would need to review the report before commenting on it.

“We are looking forward to receiving all comments from the public, including the genetic analysis that may have been performed by people, so we can make an informed decision,” he said.

Kent McMullen, chairman of the Natural Resources Advisory Committee, said he hopes the research will show other communities how to deal with the more than 700 proposed endangered species listings that are the result of a settlement between Fish and Wildlife and the Center for Biological Diversity.

It could even lead to challenges of decades-old endangered species listings.

“There seems to be an incestuous relationship between the Fish and Wildlife Service and the environmental organizations that are bringing the lawsuits,” said McMullen, whose group advises county governments on agricultural issues. “It’s a follow the money situation.”

Turner said he told Fish and Wildlife officials that he hopes the agency will be able to work with DNA researchers in the future.

“Listen, this is a sea change,” he recalled telling them. “DNA is a really, really strong tool and you guys can save a lot of money by using this technology.”

Attorney Toni Meacham said the report would be submitted electronically to Fish and Wildlife by the 5 p.m. Monday deadline for public comments. She said farmers and Franklin County are not ruling out a lawsuit.

“We have to be prepared to move forward if they ignore this data,” she said.

Fish and Wildlife, which reopened the comment period after an outcry last year for a lack of notice for a comment period for the White Bluffs bladderpod listing, is expected to make a decision on the listing in November.

Noah Greenwal, an ecologist in the Center for Biological Diversity’s Portland office, said Fish and Wildlife used solid science when protecting the White Bluffs bladderpod.

“The agency can hardly be faulted for not considering a study that hadn’t even been conducted yet,” he said. “It is also noteworthy that the study has yet to be peer reviewed and is based on a very small sample size. If, however, it does turn out that the new research meets peer review and shows the bladderpod not to be unique, then there is a process for the agency to consider the new information and remove protections.”

Richard Nielson, an alfalfa and wheat farmer who owns 15 acres in the proposed critical habitat area, said Fish and Wildlife made mistakes in the process.

“I frankly feel they felt they were dealing with a very unsophisticated populace,” he said. “I think we’re proving that maybe Goliath came up against the wrong David.”

Nielson also said that  Fish and Wildlife state Director Ken Berg told him that the agency had performed its own DNA testing when he visited his farm July 10, something Berg denied in an interview with the Herald the next day.

On Monday, Thompson said he wasn’t aware of any DNA testing performed by Fish and Wildlife.

— Geoff Folsom: 509-582-1543;; @GeoffFolsom

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Matthew Weaver/Capital Press

Toni Meacham stands in one of the pastures on her family’s ranch in Connell, Wash., the afternoon of Jan. 29. She remembered finding out she passed the bar to become a lawyer just as her brother-in-law called her to help with a horse foaling. That’s the way it goes,  you might have the biggest win of your career, but you’ve still got to feed the horses and cows and make sure everyone’s got water, she said.

Attorney fights for underdog while balancing law, ag


Capital Press

CONNELL, Wash. — Toni Meacham knew she would be a lawyer when she was in fifth grade.

“I saw the hardships agriculture was facing,” she said. “They needed somebody to protect them, and I’ve always liked to take on the underdog.”

Based in Connell, Wash., Meacham is one of the attorneys defending Dayton, Wash., rancher Joe Lemire. He challenged a Washington Department of Ecology order to make changes to protect nearby Pataha Creek, saying there’s no evidence his ranch caused pollution.

Meacham said she felt Lemire definitely qualified as an underdog.

“Everything was stacked against him and nobody was willing to help him. Everybody told him, ‘You need to compromise, you need to settle this with Ecology,'” Meacham said. “He just didn’t want to do it.”

The case is before the state Supreme Court.

“What a win for Joe really means is Ecology has to follow the rules,” Meacham said. “It has to actually have some scientific basis for what they’re doing, they can’t just go and run over somebody.”

Lemire said he has become close with Meacham and her family.

“She has the same values (we) do, I guess you’d call them old-fashioned, but they’re not, they’re the right values,” Lemire said.

Meacham is executive director of the non-profit Washington Agricultural Legal Foundation (WALF). The foundation promotes agricultural private property rights and water rights.

The board — consisting of representatives of the dairy and cattle industry — decides whether she takes on a case because it impacts agriculture as a whole.

If not, Meacham will determine whether the farmer wants her to represent him as a private attorney or if different representation is available, depending on the farmer’s circumstances.

Washington Cattlemen’s Association executive vice president Jack Field is on the WALF board. He says it’s more important to have such a foundation and leadership like Meacham than ever.

“When we look at cases, she understands the way producers approach an issue, and people with a nonlegal background,” Field said. “When necessary, she can rein us in and say, ‘The law only allows for ‘X,’ so we’ve got to make sure we stay within this.’ She’s not going to pull any punches when an issue’s on the line.”

Meacham practices law and works full time on the KT Ranch in Connell with her parents, sister and brother-in-law and her husband, Troy, running 100 head of Hereford, Braford and Angus cattle and 70 head of foundation quarter horses. Having that background helps Meacham to determine whether a farmer has a case.

“I just have an innate understanding,” she said. “When somebody comes to me and talks about crops, ag, cows, different breeds, I actually know what they’re talking about.”

Government oversight is one of the biggest issues Meacham is working on for agriculture. She hopes to see her cases reach outcomes that will protect agriculture so that “we don’t have to keep having the same fight over and over again.”

“Agriculture in general needs to stop bowing down to government and start standing up for themselves,” she said. “Make government entities prove what they’re saying about us. I want to see the scientific basis of what you’re telling me — where is the testing, where is the proof?”

Toni Meacham

Age: 33

Occupation: Attorney, executive director of the Washington State Agriculture Legal Foundation

Hometown: Connell, Wash.

Family: Married to husband Troy, two sons, ages 2 and 4

Education: Associate of arts degree from Columbia Basin College, bachelor of arts degree in animal science from Washington State University, juris doctor degree at University of Idaho


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Sheriff investigates wolf attacks

Updated: Thursday, November 01, 2012 10:44 AM

County officer shares identification tips with cattle group


Capital Press

MOSES LAKE, Wash. — Stevens County Sheriff Kendle Allen says he knows what a wolf kill looks like.

“(We) have as much expertise in figuring out what’s a wolf attack and what’s not than anybody who works for the (Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife),” Allen said. His officers patrol the county where most of Washington state’s wolf kills have occurred.

Allen and his deputies may determine a wolf attack was a likely cause of a cow’s death, but Fish and Wildlife officers have to take the information back to a panel “of people that were never there, who have never actually seen a wolf depredation in their life,” to make a determination, he said.

According to department policy, a review panel of predator experts from the state agency, USDA Wildlife Services and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, including experts from other western states with wolves, is convened. They then review the case, and panel members ask questions and offer additional comments before a determination of cause of death is made.

Wolves typically attack the hind quarters of an animal, under the rear leg and under the front legs, Allen said. Cougars are stealthy and will lie in wait before attacking, but wolf packs will run an animal until it becomes exhausted and gives up. Wolves attack from behind and are messy eaters, and will scatter the animal they’re eating for hundreds of yards.

The longer it takes to find a dead animal, the less chance there is to prove it was killed by wolves, Allen said.

“There’s wolf predation, and there’s a wolf finding it dead and eating on it,” he said. “What you have to prove is that the wolf actually killed it.”

Allen recommended against moving a dead calf, since officials also will look for insect activity, prints and scat in the area.

Stevens County Cattlemen’s Association President Scott Nielsen advised ranchers who suspect wolf depredation to have an agency like the sheriff’s office provide oversight and protect the property owner.

Allen showed a series of photographs of calves and cows that had been killed by wolves, pointing out the distinctive evidence that proves how they died.

Members of the Stevens County sheriff’s office have learned to investigate livestock deaths the same way they probe murders and other crimes, he said. They look at all of the evidence, including the wounds and the surroundings.

He and several deputies have gone through state Department of Fish and Wildlife training to learn to identify a wolf attack. But the photos of wolf kills that he showed Cattle Producers of Washington members at their Oct. 26 meeting were “far better” than anything they saw in training, he said.

Attorney Toni Meacham, executive director of the Washington Agricultural Legal Foundation, credited the county association’s and sheriff’s response for the reasons Wedge wolf pack attacks were confirmed on the Diamond M Ranch in Laurier, Wash.

“We can’t move forward and say there’s wolf kills if we don’t have incident reports that say ‘Confirmed kills,'” she said.

“Wolves are new to this state,” Mitch Friedman, executive director of nonprofit corporation Conservation Northwest, said. “My understanding from the writing of experts in the Rockies is it takes a lot of experience to identify a wolf kill.”

Friedman cited wolf expert Carter Niemeyer’s position that 90 percent of suspected kills are wrongly attributed to wolves.

Friedman, contacted after the meeting, said his organization is working to provide resources to reduce conflict between wolves and ranchers.

“From now until forever, we’re all going to be here together,” Friedman said. “Let’s figure out how to reduce the risk of conflict rather than how to react to it.”