Recess is over for grazing
Cattle are back on Meiss Meadows near Luther Pass, drawing complaints from environmentalists.
Two years ago, the Forest Service was cited for water quality violations in the Upper Truckee River, which runs through the meadow. That led to a one-year recess in grazing.
On Monday, 200 cows were released on Forest Service land that includes 350 acres of the meadow. That’s half the number that used to be allowed, and the seven-week grazing period could be cut short if water quality erodes again.
The violation stemmed from tests showing elevated bacterial levels in the water resulting from fecal contamination. The owners – James Cuneo of Jackson, Calif., and Doug Joses of Mount Ranch, Calif. – agreed to keep the cattle off the meadow last summer until the cause could be determined.
Jeff Reiner, watershed program leader, said water samples taken while the cows were gone made it clear they caused the pollution. The Forest Service restricted the number of cows allowed on the meadow this year, and could give the owners 10 days to remove the herd if further problems are found.
Sierra Club officials think the Forest Service could do away with grazing in the Tahoe Basin all together, eliminating the problem.
“We really want the Forest Service’s limited resources focused on the lake, not on these secondary things that they’re permitting, which could potentially harm the lake,” said Michael Donahue, Sierra Club conservation co-chair. “It’s inappropriate to introduce grazing that has limited value and has negative impacts on the environment up here.”
Beyond water quality, environmentalists said cows and people shouldn’t mix in Meiss Meadows. More than 15,000 people visit the 11,275 acres of high Alpine meadows, peaks and mountain lakes each year, according to the League to Save Lake Tahoe.
Dave Roberts, League assistant executive director, said the Forest Service shouldn’t spend money to monitor something that’s destroying the meadow environment while sending cow excrement downstream to Lake Tahoe.
“We are spending millions of dollars to restore the Upper Truckee River in addition to a billion dollars to restore Lake Tahoe,” Roberts said. “It’s crazy to continue to allow cattle grazing when we know that it degrades water quality and negatively impacts recreation.”
Although scientists haven’t been able to determine the amount of nutrients coming from cows, Bruce Warden, an environmental specialist for the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board, said there is a correlation. Nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen have been blamed for Tahoe’s declining water clarity.
With the owners’ 10-year permit up for renewal next year, water quality violations could keep cows out of Meiss Meadows for good, putting an end to 200 years of livestock grazing.
“Water quality measurements we expect will tell us whether grazing can continue in the meadow,” said Maribeth Gustafson, forest supervisor of the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit.
Gustafson said if grazing doesn’t result in a violation of water quality standards, she will use other guides in determining whether to renew the permit, such as how grazing affects stream banks, vegetation and recreation.
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