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Umatillas and USFS reach grazing agreement

PENDLETON, Ore. – The U.S. Forest Service and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation have signed a memorandum of agreement to allow cattle to be grazed on the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest. Some 300 cattle owned by Indian Country Livestock will be permitted to graze on the Dark Ensign allotment covering about 26,000 acres south of Indian Lake.

What makes this agreement unique is that it’s the first of its kind in the nation, as far as anyone can determine, allowing a tribe to exercise its treaty rights to graze livestock on lands administered by the USFS.

Brent Leonhard, CTUIR deputy attorney general, said discussions locally have been going on for several years but, “The discussions about being able to graze on national forests have been going on for decades.”

He explained the mechanics of the MOA. “It allows the tribe to directly exercise their treaty right rather than having to go through a permitting process or anything of that sort. The tribes effectively can determine among themselves who they want out there exercising those rights and right now we have ICL out there.

“One of the big hurdles was the mechanics of how the tribes would do it, and we resolved that primarily by assuring that the tribes would be complying with certain rules and regulations which the tribes agreed with that are particularly there for environmental concerns. The specific mechanics will be left to the tribes.”

The tribe will follow Forest Service rules pertaining to movement of cattle, avoiding riparian areas, salting and similar requirements. It also allows the tribe to make improvements to ponds, spring developments, fences, etc.

Gordy Schumacher works in the Department of Natural Resources for the tribe. He said the agreement allowed the cattle to be released July 1. “The cattle can remain on the range till the end of September.”

He explained that ICL is an Indian cattle co-op. “All the members are tribal members. Their largest member, which owns about 85 percent of the shares in the company, is Tiichum Conservation District. It’s a political subdivision of the tribe. I believe there are 13 other members who own shares in the company.”

The agreement calls for the tribe to use the allotment for a five-year period with the option to extend that period if both parties show interest. The grazing agreement allows up to 600 head of cattle to be grazed, but at present ICL has 300 head. ICL will use the allotment the first two years, but after that time CTUIR will provide a process to select a tribal member or group to utilize the grazing allotment.

“That’s under a tribal resolution that was approved about two months ago,” Schumacher said. “It has nothing to do with the Forest Service. We’re trying to develop a fair process to select potential tribal members to utilize that right.”

Kurt Wiedenmann, district ranger for the USFS on this particular district, was quoted in a joint news release saying, “I think one of the elements we’re excited about is that Indian Country Livestock brings with them really quite a structured organization that will be able to manage livestock to our standards. They have the people to do it right. A number of their folks work for the tribes and have a real understanding of the same principles we have. … protecting riparian zones, don’t overgraze, keep the cattle moving. … strong environmental values.”

“They are probably one of the best agencies in the federal government to work with,” Leonhard said of USFS. “They didn’t have any qualms with the fact the tribes had this treaty right and they were willing to work closely with the tribes to find a vehicle to make it happen. This all came together and it worked well.”

“We’re pleased that this project has moved forward and that we are now able to exercise our livestock grazing treaty right on federal land,” said Antone Minthorn, chairman of the CTUIR Board of Trustees in the joint release. “We appreciate the Forest Service’s willingness to work with us on this important endeavor. We have the staff, resources and traditional knowledge of this land that will help us effectively exercise our treaty grazing right.”