It has been one of the most controversial questions in Southeast Washington: When livestock graze on public land, does that ever actually help wildlife?


A host of science over the years has made clear that running cattle on sensitive landscapes can damage soils and streams and change the ecology of the land. But some research has suggested that livestock chomping away poor old grasses may in some cases improve the quality of food that remains for creatures like deer or elk.


Into this debate in 2005 stepped Gov. Chris Gregoire, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Washington Cattlemen's Association. With Gregoire eager to help ranchers, the state agreed to set up a "pilot grazing program" in the Blue Mountains in Asotin County. The program let ranchers graze on important wildlife lands in part to see if livestock could enhance the area's "ecological integrity."


The state spent hundreds of thousands of dollars and environmentalists sued, fearing damage to native plants and streams. A Superior Court judge ruled the state had not established a reason to think grazing would help wildlife; the state's own biologists were sharply critical of the program.


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