Ranchers worried about water rights law
Local ranchers heard warnings about potential legislative efforts to weaken or repeal Oregon’s 1909 water rights laws, reports of lawsuits challenging grazing rights, and discussed the politics of endangered species protection of wolves during the Baker County Livestock Associations annual meeting Saturday in Baker City.
Mike Colton, who was elected to replaced Cal Ransom as the Association’s president, said listening sessions on water rights issues orchestrated by westside legislators appear to him to be part of a plan to rewrite Oregon’s almost century-old water rights law.
“It’s huge. It’s beyond huge,” Colton said.
He said it’s important for ranchers to attend the sessions and submit written comments to the House Environment and Energy Committee to make sure the agricultural industry’s perspective is represented in the development of any revisions of the 1909 water rights laws.
Elizabeth Howard, a Portland attorney representing Oregon’s cattle industry, told ranchers Saturday that plans are afoot to rewrite the state’s water rights laws next year in a celebration of the centennial of the 1909 law that guaranteed priorities for agricultural water rights based on first come, first served.
She said the leadership of the Oregon Water Resources Commission has also been pushing for stricter enforcement of agricultural water usage through new metering and water usage reporting requirements.
Colton said those efforts reflect the goals of environmental groups to wrest a bigger share of stream flows and water rights for fish and wildlife.
On the topic of litigation affecting ranchers’ grazing allotments on public lands, Howard said that although ranchers challenging lawsuits from the Oregon Natural Desert Association won in state court, some of the state rulings on wilderness characteristics have been overturned by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, requiring the BLM and the Forest Service to redo inventories done in the 1980s of wilderness characteristics.
While those court cases involve allotments in the Lakeview and Steens Mountain areas, Howard said they also affect the way the BLM and the Forest Service put together range management plans in Northeastern Oregon.
Howard recommended ranchers provide information to the BLM and Forest Service to make sure any revised wilderness inventories include roads, homes, buildings, fencing and other improvements that would preclude a grazing allotment from qualifying as a wilderness area.
Howard said Congress has the final say on designating wilderness areas.
Howard said the federal action reversing delisting of gray wolves would have little effect on wolves that have migrated to Oregon, as long as the species remains listed as endangered under state law.
In July, a wolf pack that contains both adults and pups was confirmed in a forested area of Union County, marking the first confirmed evidence of multiple wolves wolves and wolf reproduction in Oregon since the 1940s, Howard said.
Under state law, Howard said wolves “may not be legally harmed by the public unless it is to defend from an immediate and direct threat to human life.”
During the livestock association’s annual business meeting on Oct. 14, Bill Moore, a Unity rancher and president of the Oregon Cattle Cattlemen’s Association, said now that wolves have been confirmed in Northeastern Oregon, its important to make protection of property rights, including protecting livestock from wolves and fair compensation for losses, top priorities.
Ken Benson then made a motion to make protection of property rights the No. 1 priority, with fair compensation the No. 2 priority and reclassification of the wolf to a game animal No. 3 priority for allocation of funds collected from cattlemen by the Oregon Beef Council. Rancher Cal Foster seconded the motion, which passed unanimously.
Moore also reported on House Bill 2656, which seeks an increase of 50 cents in the Oregon Beef Checkoff.
He said the bill requires the additional funds — an estimated $400,000 — to be spent on promotion of the beef industry, animal science research, range science research, promoting the beef industry image and administration.