BLM Proposes Looser Grazing Restrictions, Alarms Environmentalists 

Idaho conservation group says new initiative is "disastrous."

click to enlarge This area of the controversial Battle Mountain Argenta Allotment in Nevada is known as The Park. - KATIE FITE
  • Katie Fite
  • This area of the controversial Battle Mountain Argenta Allotment in Nevada is known as The Park.

The Bureau of Land Management announced a new initiative Sept. 22 intended to strengthen its relationship with ranchers who hold permits to graze cattle on BLM-managed land.

The initiative will create between six and 12 “outcomes-based grazing authorizations,” or revised grazing plans, tailored to specific allotments. Instead of setting regulations for the grazing process (such as how many cattle to graze, and when and where to graze them) as

the BLM has done in the past, the new authorizations will prioritize whether grazing produces positive ecological results. The proposal already has its critics: According to Katie Fite, director of public lands for the conservation group WildLands Defense and past biodiversity director for Western Watersheds Project, “positive ecological results” are impossible if cattle is given more latitude on the range.

“The whole idea that this is going to be ‘performance-based’ just means that you

aren’t going to have any checks along the way,” said Fite. “If you don’t have basic checks, the public lands are going to suffer very seriously.”

A BLM press release confirmed the new method will allow permit holders “an unprecedented level of flexibility in the management of livestock”—a move the BLM said is in line with the goals of the Trump administration. The BLM will accept proposals from permitees through Oct. 27, and a committee will then choose which of them to use as jumping-off points for new grazing authorizations. BLM Public Affairs Specialist Brian Lombard said the BLM hopes for outcomes that will please both ranchers and environmentalists.

“The program will help ranchers respond to weather-based conditions that change without warning,” he said, and environmentalists may see “an increase in the diversity and cover of native plant communities, a reduction in invasive natural grasses and a reduction in fuel loadings, which could reduce the threat of wildfires.”

click to enlarge Many areas of the Battle Mountain Argenta Allotment, like this one, show signs of heavy livestock use. - KATIE FITE
  • Katie Fite
  • Many areas of the Battle Mountain Argenta Allotment, like this one, show signs of heavy livestock use.

Fite said these outcomes are about as likely as cows one day grazing on the moon. Citing studies from Prescott College and the Oregon Natural Desert Association, among others, she argued livestock grazing will actually spread invasive weeds and weaken biodiversity by tearing up the microbiotic crust of moss, algae and lichen that protects the soil. Fite also said livestock would trample sage grouse habitat and break down streambeds, and worried an aim to reduce wildfires could mean the BLM would graze the land “down to the nub, creating “a cheatgrass hellhole” devoid of native vegetation.

To illustrate the dangers of outcomes-based grazing, Fite pointed to the Battle Mountain Argenta Allotment in Nevada, which stirred up controversy in June 2015 when ranchers began grazing cattle in sections of the allotment that were off limits due to drought. According to an article in the Elko Daily Free Press, the BLM “indicated it ‘would not interfere’ with the cattle turnout,” and then-Acting BLM State Director John Ruhs told the ranchers “the agency wouldn’t attempt to stop [them],” even though they were in direct violation of a BLM mandate.

The BLM made its position permanent when it settled with the ranchers and officially reopened the land for restricted grazing—despite the risk of over-grazing native plants in dry conditions, which is what led the allotment to be closed in the first place. In an October 2015 memorandum by BLM Ecological Protection Specialists from the Mount Lewis Field Office in Battle Mountain, Nevada, damage to the allotment was confirmed: The majority of the heavily grazed areas were reported as being in “poor” condition.

Ruhs has since moved up the ranks at BLM and in April 2017, he was appointed acting deputy director of Operations—the highest BLM position that doesn't require Senate confirmation—under Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. For Fite, Ruhs' rise indicates a shift in BLM priorities away from conservation and toward industry, a reflection of Trump  administration environmental policies.

“This [outcomes-based grazing authorizations initiative] is another disastrous proposal, an attempt to roll back the clock to the 1950s or even earlier,” Fite said. “It makes no sense scientifically, and it certainly makes no sense for the American people and taxpayers, because we’re going to be left with more grazing messes on our hands.”

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