Trout Creek Mountain Working Group

Posted: Oct 3, 2005
Written by: 
Natalie Henry

The Whitehorse and Oregon Canyon watersheds of Trout Creek Mountain, in southeast Oregon and a small part of Nevada, a high desert area with aspen, willow, dogwood, sagebrush, and bunchgrass.

Objective: Many people in the group are fond of repeating a conversation that occurred in 1990 between an environmentalist and a rancher during a field trip taken by the group to monitor new grazing techniques. An environmentalist said her goal was to have, in the stream and its banks, baby aspen trees, teenage aspen, middle-age aspen and old aspen, as well as willows and trout of all ages. The rancher said he wanted the same things living side-by-side with baby ranchers, teenage ranchers, middle-age ranchers and old ranchers, and their livestock.

In other words, the group's objective is "to repopulate the fish, repopulate the riparian areas, and to keep us in the cow business," according to Richard Yturriondobeitia of the Twelvemile Ranch.

Participants: U.S. Bureau of Land Management; Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife; Oregon Cattleman's Association; Whitehorse Ranch; Disaster Peak Ranch; McCormick Ranch; Zimmerman Ranch; Wilkinson Ranches; Oregon Environmental Council; Oregon Trout; Izaak Walton League of America; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Buckcorral Spring, 1988
Buckcorral Spring, 2005
Photos courtesy of Bureau of Land Management
History: In June 1988, cutthroat trout were declining throughout the high desert West, and Trout Creek Mountain was no exception. A remote highland desert straddling the Oregon-Nevada border, the mountain was named for the very trout that were swimming toward extinction in its creeks.

Ranching had continued unfettered on Trout Creek Mountain since the 1870s. The most destructive practice was summer grazing, because inevitably cows would seek the shade and water of streams to cool off, trampling young aspen and willow, which decreased shade along the stream, raised the water temperature, and muddied the water. Trout need clear, cool, shaded streams.

"You had very few willows, and not much protection from erosion, and everyone knew a train wreck was coming," said Cynthia Tait of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's (BLM) Vale district.

The ranchers were worried for their future and everyone was worried about the future of cutthroat trout. In June 1988, frustrations boiled over when Connie and Doc Hatfield, ranchers from Brothers, Ore., 200 miles west of Trout Creek Mountain, were invited to talk about their success working cooperatively with their local BLM district. A BLM riparian specialist was also invited. The meeting was tense, people began fighting, and the Hatfields ran out of time in which to make their presentation. The next day, when the Hatfields went on a tour of the mountain, Connie saw the state of the streams and felt called to take action. She set up a meeting a month later in Portland with the BLM state director, ranchers, and environmentalists.

Not all ranchers wanted to collaborate, but they saw few choices. "It was either come to the table or not graze," said rancher Yturriondobeitia.

With the BLM state director's support—which the Hatfields say was imperative—the Trout Creek Mountain Working Group was formed. The Hatfields became facilitators, and at the next meeting - and every meeting since - everyone sat in a circle and talked about their feelings and what they wanted to accomplish. "Everyone shares what their feelings are and everyone listens with respect. There's none of that getting up and going and talking in the hallways and that sort of thing," Connie says. Even employees from the BLM and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) participate in the process as citizens, like everyone else. These non-traditional methods are critical in ensuring that everyone is participating and working toward a solution, according to Connie.

"That was very radical in the late 1980s, to have everyone sit together in a circle," Tait said.

Women have played a key role in the process, according to Connie. Most of the ranches are husband-and-wife teams, and the wives are expressly invited because, as Connie says, "The women are more easily able to hear a different perspective because they don't have a tradition to uphold like the men do."

The group met frequently during the first few years to amend grazing practices to protect fish. And after more than 15 years, the group is still active, meeting each fall for a two-day meeting and tour of the mountain.
Ranchers and the BLM have sought to reduce the impact of cattle grazing on area allotments.
Photo courtesy of BLM

Accomplishments: The first major accomplishment came when the Whitehorse Ranch—which held most of the pastures in the area of most concern, the Whitehorse Butte area—agreed not to graze on those 50,000 acres for three years. Meanwhile, the group began developing alternative livestock grazing strategies for the area, following the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act. In late 1991 a new grazing plan was signed, and in spring 1992 it was implemented.

Under the 1991 plan, Whitehorse Butte is now grazed for two months instead of four, with cows coming off the range in mid-July. The number of cows grazed was cut from 1,900 to 700 on the mountain and 1,900 to 1,500 in the lower elevation pastures. The pastures are grazed for two years and then rested for two years to allow the grasses time to recover. And, the BLM fenced off 16 miles of stream and built a reservoir for cattle fed by an 18-mile pipeline and situated well away from the streams.

A test came in 1991 when the mountain's cutthroat trout were identified as Lahontan cutthroat, which were protected under the Endangered Species Act. Previously, biologists thought they were Willow/Whitehorse cutthroat. Now the BLM had to submit its grazing plan to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) to ensure it would adequately protect and help recover the fish. After reviewing the plan, USFWS agreed it would.

Today, trout numbers are up. From 1989 to 1999, ODFW surveys show the runs continually increasing, so much so that the state opened up a catch-and-release fishery in 2001, which sees only minimal angler action due to the remoteness of the area. And the riparian areas are exploding with aspens, willows and grasses, of all ages and sizes.

"The riparian areas on most of the streams, not all of them but most of them, are in excellent condition," said Tim Walters, a biologist for ODFW and member of the group. Walters expects a new trout count to be complete in December 2005.

Mary Hanson, another member of the group representing the Oregon Environmental Council, is equally pleased with the changes. "The surveys they've done on the fish show the populations have increased and actually, for that particular recovery unit, they are probably well on the way to recovery," she said.

Whitehorse Creek from Green Ponds
Photo courtesy of BLM
Challenges/constraints: For the Hatfields, the biggest challenge was dealing with an agency that had high employee turnover and was focused on products, such as grazing permits or recreational activities, as opposed to cooperative processes and the health of the land. "The environmental people and the ranchers have stayed pretty much the same, but the BLM personnel I think are entirely changed from when we started," according to Doc. Each time a new BLM manager comes to the area, he or she has to be convinced to get involved—which is why the support of the BLM state director is imperative—and then brought up to speed. Doc stressed that their group has been successful because it is driven by citizens, not agencies.

The group has also been challenged to maintain participation by environmentalists, who mostly live many hours from the mountain. Many environmentalists have dropped out of the group over the years, despite repeated invitations.

For environmentalists, the biggest challenge was finding a way to help the fish while still allowing ranching. For ranchers, accustomed for 130 years to grazing the mountain all summer long, every year, the challenge was adjusting to a new way of doing things, ways not always good for business. "When you totally change your operation, it always makes it more expensive. Those were the challenges to us. We had to find other places to graze or other ways to graze. And it was hard just admitting that maybe what you've always done isn't what should always be done," Yturriondobeitia said.

The group has begun expanding its focus beyond the 250,000-acre mountain, where the riparian areas are, to also address overgrazing on up to 500,000 acres of drier, lower-elevation pastures where sagebrush and bunchgrass are abundant. These areas have experienced heavy grazing while the mountain was allowed to rest and recover. "Now we're trying to get the whole system back on track," Tait said, which will mean less grazing in the uplands.

BLM analyzed several options for the uplands, including reducing herd sizes and shuffling cows around. In addition, BLM is considering adjusting the mountain's 1991 grazing plan from two years of rangeland rest and two years of grazing, to one year of rest and one year of grazing, which would fall in line with grazing practices throughout the area and give ranchers more flexibility and, overall, more grazing opportunities.

For more information see:

Trout Creek Mountain Information

Trout Creek Mountain Grazing Area Management Project Case Study
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