Courts, Congress hold sway in 2010 - Producers across the West closely watch as judges, politicians tackle looming issues

by the Capital Press

December 29, 2010

Many different issues made headlines in 2010. But a few, including wolves, water, commodity prices and government regulation, consistently dominated the news.


Few topics provoke as strong a reaction from Western ranchers as do efforts to protect gray wolves under the Endangered Species Act. This year there was a lot to talk about.

In 2009, Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar upheld a Bush administration decision to remove the gray wolf in the northern Rockies from the endangered species list. Under a plan worked out with the states, the wolves were delisted in Idaho and Montana.

Both states established restricted hunts to reduce the wolf population to protect other game species and livestock from predation. About 200 wolves were killed by hunters in those states between fall 2009 and spring of 2010.

A federal judge ruled in August, however, that the government couldn't delist wolves in Idaho and Montana while maintaining protections in Wyoming, which had not approved a state plan for the animals' management.

The ruling halted fall hunts planned in Idaho and Montana and led to several unsuccessful attempts by Western legislators to have Congress delist the wolves by statute. The dispute also led Idaho Gov. Butch Otter to order state officials to turn management of the wolves over to the federal government.

The ruling gave state agencies in Washington and Oregon supervision of wolf management in those states. Early this summer, wolves were blamed for the deaths of 10 calves and several sheep in northeastern Oregon.

The wolf issue is destined to remain in the courts in 2011.

The Center for Biological Diversity has filed notice that it would sue the Department of Interior within 60 days if the agency doesn't formulate a plan for the reintroduction of gray wolves throughout their historic range in the lower 48 states. That would include all of the continental U.S. except 10 states in the Southeast.


Much of the story of Western agriculture has centered on the fight for water. That struggle continued unabated in 2011.

This year the battle involved concerns over withdraws from shrinking ground water supplies.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and Washington State Department of Ecology this year released a study examining several options for using Columbia River water on land now irrigated with water taken from deep wells in the Odessa Subarea. That aquifer has declined by 200 feet or more during the past 30 years. A hydrologic study of part of Washington state's Columbia Basin predicts most ground water in that area could run out in the next decade.

After five years of negotiations, two agreements to guide the restoration of the Klamath River in Oregon and California were signed in Salem.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski and U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar on Feb. 18 signed onto what Salazar called "the largest river restoration effort that America has ever seen" and the world's largest-ever dam removal project. Though removing the dams will cost $450 million, removal is seen as a low-cost and environmentally friendly alternative to relicensing the dams.

Supporters point out the deal was hammered out between a number of stakeholders. But opponents say environmentalists, Indian tribes and fishermen were handed far too many concessions at the expense of farmers and ranchers.

California's water woes remained in the news in 2010.

Schwarzenegger's administration took up the Bay Delta Conservation Plan in 2006. It is now being crafted by state and federal agencies with input and support from irrigators, environmentalists and urban water users. Officials have said it will be completed by next year.

The plan now contains proposals for a tunnel to extract water from the Sacramento River before it reaches the estuary for export to irrigators and cities. A similar idea, known as the "peripheral canal" and largely opposed by Delta farmers and residents, was originally put before voters in the 1980s.

In 2007, Schwarzenegger appointed the Delta Vision Blue Ribbon Task Force to recommend how best to restore the Delta. The council laid out the "co-equal goals" of developing a healthy estuary while stabilizing the supply of water pumped out.

Legislators claimed those goals as their guide in crafting legislation that erects a new governing body for Delta management. Lawmakers also introduced an $11 billion bond to pay for restoring Delta species and building new water storage. Lawmakers earlier this year removed the bond from the November ballot and postponed it for two years, citing a down economy and flagging support.

For much of the Pacific Northwest and California, abnormally wet fall and early winter weather is easing short-term water concerns. The La NiƱa weather pattern has brought heavy snows into the Cascades and the Sierra Nevada and dumped enough rain to fill Northern California reservoirs.

California water experts in September proclaimed that state's three-year drought was over.

Their initial estimates show the mountain snowpack holds twice as much water as normal, presenting the possibility that water deliveries in 2011 will be much improved.

Biotech crops

Litigation concerning Monsanto's Roundup Ready alfalfa and sugar beets continued to make headlines in 2010. This summer, the Supreme Court issued a ruling that placed limits on the power of federal courts to regulate biotech crops.

USDA deregulated Roundup Ready alfalfa in 2005 and became the focus of a lawsuit filed by the Center for Food Safety in March 2006. In 2007, U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer ruled that USDA violated the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to prepare an environmental impact statement prior to deregulating the crop.

Breyer ordered USDA to complete an environmental impact statement and issued an injunction prohibiting further planting of the crop. A federal appeals court upheld the injunction, and the case went to the Supreme Court.

In June the court ruled that Breyer had overstepped his authority by issuing the injunction because the USDA has sole authority to regulate biotech crops.

The USDA has completed its review and next month will decide between two deregulation schemes. One option would again deregulate Roundup Ready alfalfa without restrictions. The second would restrict plantings in seed-producing states, and establish isolation distances to prevent cross-pollination.

Meanwhile, litigation regarding Roundup Ready sugar beets continues.

The biotech beets were approved by the USDA and widely adopted by growers throughout the West and Midwest. They now make up 95 percent of the U.S. sugar beet crop.

In 2008, Earthjustice filed a lawsuit in federal court on behalf of the Center for Food Safety, the Organic Seed Alliance, the Sierra Club and High Mowing Organic Seeds. The suit alleged that the USDA had violated environmental law by failing to complete an environmental impact statement before deregulating the crop.

Last year, U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White agreed and ordered USDA to complete the study.

Earlier this year, White returned regulation of the crop to the agency, which is soon expected to issue restrictions under which Roundup Ready sugar beets could be grown next year. Plaintiffs have said they will likely challenge those rules.

White ordered Roundup Ready sugar beet seedlings being grown by seed companies under USDA permit to be destroyed. An appeals court has stayed that order as it considers an appeal by the USDA and Monsanto.

Commodity prices

Farm income improved dramatically in 2010, in part because 2009 was so bad. However, strong prices pushed a few troubled sectors back into the black.

Wheat farmers began the year with lackluster expectations. Prospects improved dramatically this summer, however, as drought severely damaged wheat crops in Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan. Its own situation made more dire by massive wildfires, Russia terminated wheat exports.

At the same time, U.S. farmers brought in a larger-than-expected crop and were able to take advantage of prices above $7 a bushel. The price run up was particularly good news for farmers in Oregon's Willamette Valley who switched grass seed acreage into wheat this year.

After two tough years where prices fell below the cost of production, dairymen began to see improvement in 2010.

After soaring to more than $19 per hundredweight in 2007, average annual milk prices toppled to less than $13 per hundredweight in 2009, according to USDA. This year, prices have climbed back to about $16 per hundredweight.

Many dairymen still face the daunting task of rebuilding equity they were forced to mortgage in order to survive. Dairymen say they need an extended period of strong prices and favorable feed prices. The recovery itself is tenuous because domestic demand is static and increased exports will depend on improvements in the global economy.

Average annual cattle prices also rose this year to about $90 per hundredweight, up by about $10 per hundredweight from 2009. Unfortunately, much of the price hike was linked to the contracting U.S. cattle herd, which is at its lowest point since 1959.


On June 22 the USDA's Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration published a proposed rule to establish greater fairness in marketing livestock and poultry.

Responding to concerns about increasing consolidation of the livestock and poultry industries, the rule would set broad new controls over how animals are bought and sold.

The proposal quickly drew the ire of both Democrats and Republicans in Congress who said the rules included provisions that the 2008 Farm Bill conference committee had rejected as too radical. A bipartisan group of 125 members of the U.S. House of Representatives urged USDA to perform a greater analysis of the rule.

Farm groups are divided on the issue. The Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America and the National Farmers Union have praised the rule. But the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, National Pork Producers Council and other livestock and poultry groups have argued the rule would cause major disruptions in business.

The House of Representatives in 2009 narrowly passed a climate change bill that included a cap and trade provision, but the measure never gained steam in the Senate.

Although farmers were said to be potential beneficiaries of the plan, to achieve the economic benefits envisioned under cap and trade, an analysis by the USDA estimated farmers would have to plant trees on some 50 million acres of farm and pasture land.

This year Democratic Sen. John Kerry and independent Sen. Joe Lieberman introduced a revised bill. It was opposed by all 41 Republican senators and several Democrats, blocking climate change legislation in the current Congress. As control of the House passes to the Republican's next year, most observers say it's unlikely climate legislation will advance in the next Congress.

But that won't stop the Environmental Protection Agency from instituting its own rules to begin regulating carbon dioxide next year. A Supreme Court decision gave the agency the authority to regulate those emissions under the Clean Air Act.