• picture
  • picture
  • picture
  • picture
Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Salmon Versus Cows

Air Date: Week of

Dams are traditionally blamed for declining salmon populations, especially on the Columbia and Snake Rivers. But as Henry Sessions reports from Oregon, trouble also starts further upstream, where grazing cows and lumbering disrupt water flow and spawning grounds for the fish.


CURWOOD: As the pace of development and economic activity increases in the Pacific Northwest, pressures are growing on the region's ecosystems, especially in the waterways. Four species of salmon native to the Columbia and Snake Rivers are now either threatened or endangered, and some scientists are predicting that many more fish species could join them. The debate over saving salmon is becoming more intense. For years the huge Columbia River dams and their lethal turbines have been blamed for the loss of fish, but increasingly ecologists are also looking past the dams, upstream, to the impact of siltation from logging - and grazing. Henry Sessions has our report.

(Sound of water)

SESSIONS: More than 300 river miles from the Pacific Ocean, in the Middle Fork of the Jonday River in eastern Oregon, a Chinook salmon floats lazily in the shallow water. She'll lay her eggs in the gravel beds and then die. Her offspring will head out to sea, but the chances of them making it back here have dropped dramatically since European settlers arrived in this area 150 years ago. Denzil Ferguson is a zoologist who retired to a small house along the Middle Fork. Standing on a stretch of the river across from his house, he says he has no doubt about who the culprit is - cows.

FERGUSON: If we got rid of livestock on public land, there is absolutely no question that we could begin to solve the salmon problem.

SESSIONS: Much of the land, that salmon spawning area here, is public, and much of that area is leased to ranchers. Last year, Ferguson based an unsuccessful run for Congress on his crusade to get cows off of public land. His views have brought him dozens of threatening phone calls. Undaunted, Ferguson drives around the back roads of Grant County in a rusty Ford Pinto, looking for places where cows have hurt streams.

FERGUSON: Every time a cow goes down, if there's a bank there and the cow goes down over the bank, the last step she takes before she goes over the bank, she causes the bank to crumble in, and the next time the water comes up it washes that amount of stuff downstream. And just imagine thousands of cows going into streams thousands of times a week, and you're talking, it's like putting gravel into the stream with a steam shovel, you know, every time a cow just walks to get a drink.

SESSIONS: As the banks collapse, streams widen. The water gets shallower and warmer - too warm for salmon. Two species of salmon have already disappeared from the Middle Fork and one of the two species left is declining. Until recently much of the debate over salmon has focused on the huge dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers, where young salmon often get ground up in turbines on their way out to sea. But Ferguson says the real problem is upstream. Along with the grazing, heavy logging in national forests has lead to soil and debris washing into dozens of salmon streams. And ranchers have drawn huge amounts of water out of rivers to irrigate fields to grow feed for cows.

(Sound of pickup truck, male voice: "My daughter's cow.")

SESSIONS: Rancher Ron Burnett drives his pickup into the middle of the 2,000 acres he leases at below-market rates from the US Forest Service. The Forest Service made Burnett build several miles of fence on public land to keep his cattle off stream banks. But just downstream, on private land, his neighbor's cows walk right into the stream, munching the juicy sedge grasses on the banks. Burnett resists the notion that cows are hurting fish.

BURNETT: I don't think anybody can say cattle have widened the streams out. The stream, for the lack of elevation, Middle Fork drainage is comparatively deep, and cattle have been there for a hundred years.

SESSIONS: Burnett says he'd take his cows off public land, if he saw proof they're contributing to the salmon's decline. But with so many interests - dam operators, ranchers, irrigators, fishermen, and loggers contributing to the problem - that proof is hard to come by.

BAKKE: We don't have a health plan for salmon.

SESSIONS: Bill Bakke is executive director of Oregon Trout, which has been pushing the Federal Government to protect the salmon.

BAKKE: There's no way to practice preventative medicine so that the runs don't get sick. The agencies, the Federal agencies typically don't get worried about anything unless somebody files a petition under the Endangered Species Act. And what I'm hoping we get to is a point where the agencies are working together to solve the problem before we get to the point where we have to take drastic, excessive action to recover a species that otherwise might be lost.

SESSIONS: Bakke's group has been lobbying for more coordination between government agencies that affect salmon. Right now, dozens of state and Federal agencies are involved, but they often end up working at cross-purposes. A perfect example is the Federal Bonneville Power Administration, which runs several Columbia River dams. Because the dams block the salmon runs, the BPA is responsible for funding and running programs to help fish. But if BPA spends too much on fish, its electric rates will go up, it could lose power customers, and thus lose revenue to help fish. And BPA administrator Randy Hardy says so far, electric rate payers don't have much to show for their contributions to salmon recovery.

HARDY: We're spending $300 million dollars a year, that's double, that's bigger than the entire national budget of the National Marine Fisheries Service or the US Fish and Wildlife Service. We are running the biggest fish program in the country, period. You know? And the irony of that is, we don't know what results we're getting for it.

SESSIONS: The BPA is now funding studies around the region to find out exactly which salmon are in danger of disappearing and why. And in a sign the Federal Government is starting to coordinate policies, President Clinton's plan for Northwest forests includes extensive protections for rivers and streams. Also, there's a move afoot in Congress to ask the Clinton Administration to appoint a "salmon czar" who'd have the power to come up with a salmon plan that all agencies would have to stick to. Environmentalist Denzil Ferguson thinks a solution to the salmon crisis just takes common sense, which he says has been lacking so far. A few years ago a construction crew arrived in front of his house, drove a tractor right up the middle of the stream, and dropped some logs and boulders in. It was a Forest Service project to recreate salmon spawning grounds in an area badly damaged by cattle grazing.

FERGUSON: When you stop and think about it, if you went to Portland and stopped 12-year-old kids on the street and got five of them in a group and said, how would you fix a stream that has been abused by cattle stomping on the banks, how would you mend that stream, do you think they would come up with that? Even children would say, hell, no, you get the cows off the stream, right?

SESSIONS: But even the simplest changes to grazing and logging practices will mean getting the cooperation of powerful and well-entrenched interests. Many of the region's major economic interests may have to sacrifice for fish, and that means many more salmon may end up on the endangered list before the biggest changes start to happen. For Living on Earth, I'm Henry Sessions in Portland.



Living on Earth wants to hear from you!

P.O. Box 990007
Prudential Station
Boston, MA, USA 02199
Telephone: 1-617-287-4121
E-mail: comments@loe.org

Newsletter [Click here]

Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.

Living on Earth offers a weekly delivery of the show's rundown to your mailbox. Sign up for our newsletter today!

Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.

Creating positive outcomes for future generations.

Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live. Listen to the race to 9 billion

The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.

Energy Foundation: Serving the public interest by helping to build a strong, clean energy economy.

Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary wildlife photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.

Buy a signed copy of Mark Seth Lender's book Smeagull the Seagull & support Living on Earth