By MATTHEW WEAVER
CENTRAL FERRY, Wash. -- Washington ranchers hope to continue using federal lands along the Snake River, but the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is cracking down on cattle encroachments.
Ranchers along the river say that for 40 years they've been allowed to graze and feed cattle on a narrow strip of land along much of the 60-mile strip of Whitman County with a handshake agreement.
But now they say they've been ordered to get their cattle and livestock equipment off the land and have been told they cannot use their adjacent range unless they construct a fence at their cost to keep their livestock off land managed by the Corps.
According to the Walla Walla, Wash., district of the Corps, three cattle trespass and encroachments are identified, near Central Ferry, Wash., and near Granite Point Quarry and Bishop Quarry.
The Corps says it has increased efforts to work with ranchers to resolve intentional cattle trespasses or encroachments for more than a year.
Bill Ryan, a Pullman, Wash., rancher, received a notice to move about 100 cattle by mid-March. He had been using the land for roughly 40 years for cattle feeding in the winter.
Some ranchers have received letters advising that they cease unauthorized use of the land, but others have not yet received them, said Dick McNeilly, a Colfax, Wash., rancher.
"It's the only place left we can feed," McNeilly said of the area. "It's just rough country."
Cattle feeding operations are inconsistent with the Corps' wildlife management mission, said Joe Saxon, a Corps spokesman. The Corps hopes to resolve the issue without impacting anyone's ability to make a living, he added.
District civilian deputy district engineer Alan Feistner said the Corps has promised not to issue citations to ranchers until May 1. After that date, if there is a change, the Corps will inform the community of ranchers and farmers, including prior notification to congressional staff, he said.
The ranchers are working with representatives of U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-5th District.
The ranchers are working on proposals to work with Washington State University land specialists to prove the cattle do not harm the habitat.
McNeilly said yellow star thistle and weeds could get out of hand on the area without the cattle.
They're also looking into the possibility of purchasing or leasing the land from the Corps.
Feistner said he feared federal lands might be sold to other buyers.
Corps staff is evaluating the best next steps and will present the options to the Corps commander, Feistner said.
Ryan is encouraged that the Corps is showing interest in working with ranchers.
Feistner said some ranchers have acknowledged the Corps' request and begun to move off public property, which he takes as a positive sign. It gives the Corps more flexibility, he said, and shows that the ranchers aren't just ignoring the Corps.
"That makes it a little bit easier for us to look for some more creative solutions," he said.