Monday, June 17, 2024
HomeGrazing ManagementFederal grazing lands fail their checkup

Federal grazing lands fail their checkup

For additional perspective, read this week’s Kathy’s Notes.

Melissa Shawcroft spent more than 30 years managing 250,000 acres of publicly owned grazing lands in the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado. A veteran employee of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Shawcroft retired earlier this month after years of working to reform the agency from within. She can now share her concerns in public without fear of reprisal, and her assessment of the agency is not pretty. The BLM, she believes, is failing to protect America’s public lands. She saw it in San Luis, she said: Despite her best efforts, many of the region’s rangelands are in a bad state — their springs running dry, native grasses depleted, and allotment boundaries relentlessly violated by trespassing ranchers who graze livestock without permission.

In an interview with High Country News, Shawcroft described a culture of complacency at the agency, which administers roughly 245 million acres of federal surface land across the nation and allows livestock grazing on some 155 million acres of it.

“From what I have seen of the grazing program, even if I tell my supervisor that I think that an allotment is getting beat up, that it is not meeting land health standards, they don’t want to hear it,” she said. “They won’t do anything about it.”

The troubled state of BLM grazing lands is not confined to Shawcroft’s corner of Colorado. According to data released today by the nonpartisan Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), 56.7 million acres of BLM rangeland fail to meet the agency’s land health standards, primarily owing to livestock grazing. Particularly hard-hit are the high, cold deserts of Nevada, Wyoming and southern Idaho; In Nevada alone, approximately 22 million acres of public grazing land do not meet health standards.

Sheep move through BLM land near Shoshone, Idaho. 56.7 million acres of BLM rangeland fail to meet the agency’s land health standards, primarily owing to livestock grazing.

“There are millions and millions of acres that are not meeting the BLM’s own health standards,” said Chandra Rosenthal, the director of PEER’s Rocky Mountain office. “That is the big takeaway here.”

“There are millions and millions of acres that are not meeting the BLM’s own health standards.”

Federal regulations direct the BLM to conduct assessments on the grazing lands it administers and determine whether they meet its health standards. These standards, set by BLM state offices around the West, are supposed to ensure that grazing lands are “maintaining, restoring or enhancing” water quality and watershed function, and “promoting the physical and biological conditions to sustain native populations” as well as the conservation of imperiled species, among other requirements.

PEER has spent years clawing details about the BLM’s land health assessment program out of the federal government. In 2020, it used agency data obtained through public records requests to construct an interactive map that depicted the results of assessments conducted between 1997 and 2019. Today, it is updating that map to include analyses conducted between 2020 to 2023. Among other findings, PEER reports that the BLM failed to conduct assessments for 24% of its grazing lands between 1997 and 2023. Of the lands that were evaluated, roughly 50% did not meet agency health standards.

There are some bright spots: BLM state offices in Montana and New Mexico, for instance, have done a much better job meeting health standards than some of their neighbors, while 83% of Montana’s assessed acreage meets agency standards.

But overall, the BLM data released today underscores the urgent problems facing public lands across the Western U.S. It’s not just overgrazing; invasive weeds, wildfires, off-road vehicle use, drought and more all contribute to the deteriorating health of the public domain. Many of the landscapes that currently fail health standards contain include habitat for imperiled species like the greater sage grouse, whose populations have cratered in recent decades.

PEER’s work also points to systematic problems with the BLM’s grazing program, which manages more than 21,000 allotments across the West. Thanks to a loophole embedded in the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, the agency isn’t required to complete environmental reviews before reissuing grazing permits to ranchers. As of 2023, a whopping 93% of the BLM allotments in Nevada were permitted using this loophole, according to PEER’s report. Environmental advocates say this has allowed many permits to evade the rigorous environmental scrutiny mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act.

“In 2023 alone, 1.9 million Animal Unit Months on more than 1,342 grazing allotments failed the land health standards due to livestock and were reauthorized through this rubber stamp process with no environmental review and no changes,” said Erik Molvar, the executive director of the Western Watershed Project, whose organization contributed to PEER’s report.

A road on BLM land near Saguache, Colorado. A veteran employee of the BLM in the San Luis Valley said that the agency is failing to protect the public lands it manages.

In a statement to High Country News, the BLM said that it “uses this Congressionally-provided authority to support the timely processing of permits and leases within a complex legal environment and limited agency resources.”

As the BLM struggles to maintain land health standards on its grazing lands, the Biden administration released a new public-lands rule last month that will expand the land health evaluation program to all surface acreage under the agency’s purview. Rosenthal hopes the administration will take concrete steps to heal the BLM’s ailing lands. She particularly wants to see the BLM fill its many vacant staff positions — vacancies that have undermined the agency’s ability to fulfill its duties.

“I think the agency needs to step up and show they can do a good job using these standards and using them to make management changes,” she said. “It is not enough to have an allotment identified as having a failing condition, they need to take action.”

“It is not enough to have an allotment identified as having a failing condition, they need to take action.”

Pointing to the new public lands rule, the BLM said that it is striving to make land health assessments “more efficient and effective” while focusing on efforts to combat invasive species and restore ecosystem health.

“The BLM is working to improve how it reports land health data and is prioritizing assessments for areas where land health standards have never been evaluated or where standards are not being met,” the agency stated.

Shawcroft said she spent much of her career battling her own bosses as she tried to enforce federal laws and regulations on the grazing lands she managed. She fought hard to convince the BLM to crack down on illegal grazing in southern Colorado and became an internal whistleblower even though her supervisors threatened her with suspension. PEER’s findings do not surprise her.

The BLM, she said, “avoids doing anything that might upset ranchers, and I think that is the basis for them not wanting to do anything. They are afraid of the livestock operators.”

Jimmy Tobias is an investigative reporter who covers federal environmental and health agencies.

Disclosure: Rosenthal is the sibling of a member of HCN’s editorial team.

This story is part of High Country News’ Conservation Beyond Boundaries project, which is supported by the BAND Foundation.

This article first appeared on High Country News and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Read the PEER report on BLM Rangeland Health here.

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