Wildlife commissioner opposed to buying ranches

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A Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission member from Asotin County said he will continue to oppose efforts by the state to purchase private ranch land.

Recently, the citizen commission approved the purchase of the 1,255-acre Thornton property along Asotin and Charley creeks. It is the latest of several land purchases by the department in Asotin County that includes an ongoing multi-year effort to buy the 12,000-acre 4-O Ranch along the Grande Ronde River.

The department now owns more than 35,000 acres in the county.

Commissioner Jay Holzmiller of Anatone voted against purchase of the Thornton property as well as the latest parcel of the 4-O.

“It’s just a vote of conscience for me,” he said.

Holzmiller, a rancher and tree farmer, was appointed to the commission by Gov. Jay Inslee in June. He said he cast his votes knowing both measures would pass and funding for them had previously been approved by the Washington Legislature.

He has a number of problems with the department’s land acquisition. Chief among them are the financial impacts to the county and how they affect young people trying to get into agriculture.

“The big thing is the economics. It takes away the ranch jobs and the spin-off dollars in town.”

Holzmiller contends the department, which is purchasing land to protect fish and wildlife habitat and to provide hunting access, is paying too much for the land. The land purchases are subject to appraisals, but he said the land is appraised based on its development value and not its value as ranching or farming ground.

That raises the cost of other property.

“I can’t blame any landowner for selling their ground if it is appraised at market-plus and who wouldn’t cash a lottery ticket. That is just the way I look at it, when the Fish and Game comes in to buy that ground, it is just like hitting the lottery.”

He isn’t opposed to all purchases. There are some small-scale acquisitions that he agrees with.

“To me if (the department) is buying a 10- or 5-acre spot along a lake or river for access, to me that makes plumb good sense, but these large tracts of ground where they are taking ground out of production and agriculture, it just goes against my nature.”

He said the chief complaint he hears from locals, by a wide margin, is the department’s thirst for land in the county. Although he hasn’t grandstanded on the land purchasing issue at commission meetings, he said he works behind the scene to educate other commission members about local opposition.

“I’m going to make them think a little bit about it,” he said.

Holzmiller also hears from people concerned about wolves and those who want Eastern Washington to get a larger share of the annual spring chinook run. He said the wolf issue is a tough one but the commission is doing its best in the face of what he calls a bad situation.

“We can never ever put that genie back in the bottle but for the hand we were dealt I think the commission is playing it as good as it possibly could be played.”

In particular, he said it was a mistake by the state to adopt a wolf recovery criteria of 15 breeding pairs distributed throughout the state. That is the same criteria adopted by the Northern Rockies states that have much more wolf habitat and far fewer people than Washington.

“We have 20 percent of the habitat and six times the people in the state. So how in the hell is that going to work and it’s all fragmented throughout the state. It’s just a wreck, an absolute wreck.”

He said the state will likely be sued if the criteria levels are reduced. But he is pleased the commission has been willing to help ranchers pay for range riders and other measures to reduce wolf predation on livestock. He also was pleased the commission voted to make formerly temporary rules permanent that allow ranchers to kill wolves in the act of attacking livestock or pets.

“It isn’t good but at least a guy can work with the deal,” he said.