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Battle rages over grazing rights

DUFUR RANCHER Mike Filbin works a herd into a tight group, keeping them bunched on a gravel road between fence lines on Tygh Ridge before moving them over Highway 197 to his corrals.

DUFUR RANCHER Mike Filbin works a herd into a tight group, keeping them bunched on a gravel road between fence lines on Tygh Ridge before moving them over Highway 197 to his corrals. Photo by Mark Gibson.

Focus on Rangeland

The series on public grazing will be published as follows:

Tuesday: Ranchers give an overview of problems that threaten their way of life.

Wednesday: How rules play out on the ground is explored by agency officials, ranchers.

Thursday: Conservationist perspective on protecting resources on public lands.

Friday: What needs to happen next to save small beef producers.

When Mike Filbin has something to say, he looks at you with the intense gaze that once picked out targets through the scope of an Army sniper rifle, and he shoots straight.

The Dufur rancher returned from a 1969-70 deployment to Vietnam with two Bronze Stars that were awarded for valor on the battlefield. His five-man sniper team was assigned to the Army’s 1st Battalion, 6th Infantry Regiment of the 198th Infantry Brigade.

Filbin, now 64, earned a Purple Heart and still carries shrapnel in his leg from the explosion of a “Bouncing Betty” mine during a foot patrol. Although he returned to the civilian world decades ago, his speech is still militaristic — short and to the point.

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MIKE FILBIN enjoys the lifestyle of a cowboy because it affords him plenty of quiet time in the saddle to contemplate current events. He also spends a lot of time planning for a future that is growing increasing uncertain due to a continual increase in species’ protection rules.

“I’m not much of a politician,” he admits, preferring to adhere to the rules of the range that require a man to say what he means and mean what he says.

During a recent interview, Filbin had a lot to say about what will happen if government agencies continue to react to “hostile environmentalism” by paring back the acreage of public lands that is available for livestock grazing.

He said the motivation behind driving cattle off public lands varies. Some bureaucrats and environmentalists oppose domestic herds out of the belief they release methane gas that contributes to global warming. Other organizations believe cattle are a non-native species that are too destructive to natural resources. Still others argue that beef is not a healthy food choice.

“There are also people who want to see public lands used only for parks, campgrounds or some type of recreation and they don’t want to see a cow when they go on a hike,” said Filbin.

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After letting a truck through, Dufur rancher Mike Filbin starts a herd across Highway 197 to his corrals on Tygh Ridge.

His herd of 400 pair (cow and calves) graze during the late spring and summer months on about 22,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management and private property in the lower Deschutes River drainage.

He also holds a permit to run cattle on Mount Hood. However, he has not done so in recent years due to continual cutbacks in grazing areas for resource protection and accommodation of recreational interests.

“The numbers (cattle allowed to graze) were just too far down, so I couldn’t afford to fool with it,” he said.

It has become increasingly difficult, he said, for cattle to move through hazardously overgrown forests that are no longer actively managed by the U.S. Forest Service due to federal policies regarding wildlife habitat.

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Dallas Aschoff of Pine Grove runs young cattle into a chute leading to a trailer for transport by cattle trailer.

“They can’t really kick you off because it’s a multi-use forest but, between the rules and the conditions, they have made it almost impossible to really graze cattle there,” he said.

It costs Filbin about $600 per trip to transport about 40 cows and calves to a grazing site, plus the fee of $1.35 per pair that he pays each month during their stay, as well as labor and the expense of materials to provide corrals and sometimes fences on the grounds he uses.

When there is a mix of private and public ground, Filbin said the monthly fee for each pair is about $10 and that cost rises to $20-30 on holdings that are entirely in private ownership.

The amount of time cattle can forage on public land is based on periodic assessments of resource conditions and species protection guidelines.

Filbin’s time generally extends from May through September.

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With more than 60 percent of Oregon in state and federal ownership, and about that same amount or more in other western states (87 percent of Nevada’s land base is federal), there isn’t enough private property to support grazing, said Filbin.

He said it takes about 100 acres of forage on semiarid grounds to provide one cow with adequate nutrition for three to four months.

Small producers cannot afford to compete with giant corporations or developers for the limited supply of private acreage, said Filbin, so that makes it vital that public lands remain open to grazing.

He said it should be a national security concern, as well as one of economics, to see America’s supply of beef tightening as global demand expands.

“There’s just a lack of common sense about this thing, and if something doesn’t change, people could be paying $60-70 for a steak in the future,” said Filbin.

“Or they could be forced to buy beef that is injected with hormones to make them grow faster because the small producers that do it right have been driven out of business.”

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DALLAS ASCHOFF, left, and Roger Johnson separate cows in preparation for moving them. Although Dufur rancher Mike Filbin holds grazing permits on Mount Hood National Forest, seen in the far background, a growing number of regulations have made it cost-prohibitive for him to transport livestock there.

In January, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported the inventory of all cattle and calves at 87.7 million, the lowest number since 85.1 million in 1952. That number was 2 percent below the inventory of 2013, which was almost 3 percent lower than 2012.

“We just keep fighting all the time for enough ground to run cattle,” said Filbin, whose ancestry includes Native American roots and family ties to both Oklahoma and Montana.

Since 1950, the number of cattle and sheep grazing the west has been reduced by 50 percent, according to the Public Lands Council that is affiliated with the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

Oregon State University Extension Agent Sandy McNab said there were 135 active family farms in Sherman County about 40 years ago, and that number has dropped to about 35. Figures for Wasco County were not available as of press time.

Even though Filbin runs one of the largest cattle operations in Wasco County, he refers to a sign in his Dufur Gap Road house that reads, “Behind every successful rancher is a wife who works in town.”

He said it has become necessary for most farm families to have steady income from another source.

His wife, Kitty, is employed with the forest service at the Barlow Ranger District office and her salary supplements the revenue they make from beef sales.

The additional income allows them to weather bad markets and record high feed costs due to drought and corn now being used in ethanol production.

Filbin was born in The Dalles but spent about six years of his childhood in Kalispell, Mont., a big ranching area.

His father worked in the power industry and, when Filbin was a teenager, moved the family to Hood River.

He returned to the gorge after leaving the military and set rigging in cable logging operations. 

That industry was in decline by the early 1980s due, in large part, to a series of new environmental rules.

About 30 years ago, Mike and Kitty decided it was time to start their own ranch, so they bought a piece of land that had been in his mother’s family about six miles south of the town of Dufur, where they live today.

They eventually purchased a patchwork of other properties.

The Half Circle F Ranch began with 25 cows and 150-60 bucking horses that were sold for the rodeo circuit.

Eventually, the horse herd was reduced and the number of cattle increased.

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AFTER BRANDING, shots and tagging, a load of cattle is transported via trailer toward the Deschutes River, where Mike Filbin leases grazing land from the Bureau of Land Management.

Filbin said being a cowboy is a good profession for a loner. He enjoys spending long days in the saddle moving cattle or checking on them in remote locations.

“I like a lot of quiet time, it gives me time to think about things,” he said.

He said most Americans have absolutely no idea what ranching life is like, or how policies set by the officials they send to Washington, D.C., affect less than 2 percent of the population that grows the nation’s food.

“We are outvoted and most of the major media doesn’t tell the story of what’s going out here,” he said.

“This isn’t going to end well if someone, somewhere, doesn’t start realizing that this industry is in real trouble.”

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A Rancher's Life is a year-long series by reporter RaeLynn Ricarte and photographer Mark B. Gibson of The Dalles Chronicle. Here are the stories so far:

A Rancher's Life and A 'big picture' outlook started the series January 25, 2014.

All in a Day's Work and Moving cows is just the beginning were published February 12, with Weathering the storms. An audio slideshow, Working cows, was also published in February.

March started with a look at wolves in two parts, Wolf trouble and Wolves on the move. It continues with Springs promise, a look at calves and spring on the ranch.

An editorial, "More defenses needed," wrapped up coverage on this issue.

May started with the story exploring the trouble faced by one ranch, whose story is told in new feature-length movie screened locally in Hood River. One family member currently lives in The Dalles, and in "A Place to call Home" she tells her story.

May also featured multiple stories addressing the issue of public grazing, an issue researched by reporter RaeLynn Ricarte for over four months. The issue is first explored in"Battle rages over grazing rights." Much of this battle has been fought in court, and "Taxpayers foot the bill of resource lawsuits" explores one aspect of this battle. Additional stories followed: Seeking balance on our public lands, A place for cattle, Activist disputes accusation of fee gouging, An embattled system,and Walden: Scrutiny need on species regulation.

The May presentation ended with an editorial expressing the need for public grazing in the western states, Resources to Thrive.

A special section, Farm and Ranch, further broadened and expanded the series in June. it is available as a .pdf document: Farm and Ranch.

As July brings hot dry weather, it's a great time to explore the impact water, and a lack of water, has on the ranch community. Water is a precious commodity in Eastern Oregon. Ditch walker Sam Cobb is in charge of how the water in water stored in Rock Creek Reservoir is distributed in the article "Ditch Walker: Water is gold, here"

In August, the second edition of Farm and Ranch explored the stories and people behind some of the brands in the region.

Water issues were further explored in August, with three-part presentation:

State and federal rules water rules impact ranchers throughout the region. Water dispute boils explores state regulations and how they impact ranch operations. A related story looks at a study launched by ranchers working with OSU to study water issues in arid and semi-arid lands.

Federal proposals to change or clarify what waters are under federal jurisdiction has many agriculturalists worried, and represents yet another clash over water.

Locally, efforts are being made to work collaboratively to improve water quality on 15-mile creek for both fish and farmers. The creek is used for irrigation.

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