Conservationists Conceive Cow Cops
Suggested Citation: Kerr, Andy. 1995. Conservationists Conceive Cow Cops. Wild Earth Vol. 5, No. 3. Fall. 57-78
By Andy Kerr
I knew we'd struck a nerve when the Grant County Stockgrowers threatened to have the sheriff arrest anyone from ONRC caught counting livestock on federal public lands. My realization was confirmed when the Governor of Oregon, while grudgingly acknowledging our legal right to do so, pointedly asked us not to monitor compliance with federal livestock grazing permits on public lands.
Much raging on the range has arisen from ONRC's new “Cow Cops” project. Anxiety in the livestock industry and federal land management agencies seems unduly high and premature, since we have just announced the project and have yet to implement it on any large scale. Moreover, the Oregon Natural Resources Council is just a law and order organization.
Cow Cops arises out of ONRC's belief that permitted livestock numbers are routinely being exceeded by many operators, resulting in even more grassland deterioration than allowed for under federal management plans. But belief is one thing and evidence is quite another.
ONRC is training volunteers to monitor range allotments throughout the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management holdings of Oregon. These volunteers aren't qualified and won't attempt to assess range condition and forage utilization. We are simply training them to review grazing permits, determine how many animal units are allowed between which dates, and then investigate whether the permittee is complying with the terms of the permit.
Our volunteers' tasks are straightforward:
1. Visit the allotment before turn-out date to see if the permittee has jumped the gun.
2. Visit the allotment during the permitted grazing season to see if the permittee has more animal units than allowed.
3. Visit the allotment after the termination of the grazing season to determine if the permittee has promptly removed the animals.
Anyone who can count, read a calendar, and learn to identify cattle markings through field glasses (not unlike learning to identify birds by their markings) can do the job.
We are instructing the volunteers to respect private property and permittees and to avoid harassing the livestock in any way. We also instruct them to avoid confrontation in the field. (We did dispatch ONRC Northeast Field Representative Tim Lillebo to count cows in Grant County, but the stockgrowers didn't show; the sheriff, state police, and district attorney had informed them about public lands and the First Amendment.)
When ONRC gathers strong and convincing evidence of livestock trespass on public lands, we will first notify the appropriate land management agency. If no action is taken, we may file a lawsuit against the trespasser under provisions of the Federal False Claims Act, the statute aimed at fraud against taxpayers. Any party who knows of a false claim being made to the government (like understating how many animals one has grazing on public lands or the time interval they are there) can sue the criminal making the false claim.
After the suit is filed, it is under seal for 30 days, allowing the government the opportunity to prosecute the trespass. If the government fails to do its job, ONRC may pursue the matter. The law provides up to triple damages (which would be based on the fair market value of the animal unit months of forage, not the subsidized government range fee), attorneys fees, and costs.
ONRC's bias--against livestock and for wildlife and clean water--will not affect the effectiveness of our Cow Cops project. All can be assured that our antipathy toward alien species (cattle, sheep) will not tempt us to bring a false claim to federal court. As always, ONRC will be extremely careful in bringing suit. We've never brought a frivolous suit. We will only bring suits we are very confident of winning. Our legal counsel in this matter is the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund.
Our future plans include aerial surveillance (combined with ground-truthing), possibly through the services of Lighthawk, the environmental air force. We may use their aerial digital imaging equipment to provide incontrovertible evidence of livestock trespass, with precise spatial and temporal coordinates.
ONRC favors the end of livestock grazing on federal lands. The ecological and economic costs of livestock grazing public lands are far in excess of any social benefit. The activity is heavily subsidized by the American taxpayer. We believe that public lands should provide public benefits such as clean water, wildlife and recreation; and that the private lands ought to grow our food and fiber in sustainable and environmentally compatible ways.
ONRC seeks a compassionate end to this environmentally and economically destructive activity. Our proposal is that livestock grazing on federal lands be phased out over ten years, with free-grazing in the interim. We support a buy-out of federal livestock grazing permits at fair market value for permittees who wish to sell, using federal tax dollars saved by not subsidizing such grazing.
But until the day that livestock no longer foul the public lands and waters, we will work to ensure that livestock grazing is done legally under terms of official land and resource management plans. If such grazing is being done accordingly, then the permittee has nothing to fear from Cow Cops.
Andy Kerr is Executive Director of the Oregon Natural Resources Council. A native Oregonian, he's been with ONRC 20 years and still hopes for the day he can throw his sleeping bag down anywhere on the public lands without its landing in cow shit.