The Bureau of Land Management is taking the initial steps to overhaul grazing regulations on public lands, a flashpoint issue that fueled the Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s and the 2016 standoff at Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
The BLM is beginning a “scoping” process that will help shape the new regulations, according to a notice scheduled to be published in the Federal Register on Jan. 21.
The grazing regulations apply to an area nearly the size of Texas, or about 155 million acres of federal land across the lower 48 states, mainly in the West. Grazing influences the politics of public lands management and the land’s ability to withstand climate change.
Cattle eat grass and other plants while trampling soils that support wildlife on federal lands. Grazing also affects the spread of invasive plant species and rangeland wildfire, and it has effects on sage-grouse habitat, water use, water quality, biological diversity, and ecosystem resiliency in the face of climate change, according to scientific research from Oregon State University, the Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies.
Modernizing Grazing Rules
The BLM in its Federal Register notice said it is overhauling the regulations in part to “modernize” them, improve grazing permitting efficiency, and comply with a 2014 federal law that exempts some grazing permits and leases from environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act. The agency said it will also include 2016 Government Accountability Office recommendations to prevent unauthorized grazing on federal lands.
A 2016 GAO report issued after the Malheur standoff recommended that the federal government keep records of all incidents of unauthorized grazing on federal land, update penalties for violations, and revise grazing regulations to reflect the best ways that federal agencies can resolve conflicts between the BLM and ranchers who let their livestock roam on federal lands without a permit.
Among the flashpoints for the Malheur standoff was tension between the BLM and ranchers who had been illegally grazing their cattle on federal lands. Similar tensions triggered the 1970s Sagebrush Rebellion, in which ranchers protested BLM grazing policy and federal ownership of public lands in the West.
The BLM’s acting director, William Perry Pendley, has been a champion of sagebrush rebels for decades. His Twitter handle is @Sagebrush_Rebel, and he advocated for grazers’ rights as president of the Mountain States Legal Foundation, which represents ranchers in cases against the BLM. The bureau declined to answer questions about the overhaul Friday, providing a press release instead.
“This rulemaking effort is designed to strengthen and improve our administration of grazing permits across the West, and we welcome public and stakeholder ideas and perspectives,” Casey B. Hammond, acting assistant Interior secretary of land and minerals management, said in the statement.
Cutting Out Public Input?
“Changes to the regulations are a big deal for the West,” said Greta Anderson, deputy director for the Western Watersheds Project, which launched a court challenge to George W. Bush administration efforts to relax compliance requirements for grazing regulation. Anderson said she worries the language of the BLM’s announcement suggests the agency may reduce standards for land health.
The announcement says BLM will “explore ways to use livestock grazing to reduce wildfire risk and improve rangeland health,” but Anderson said there is little scientific evidence that shows grazing can accomplish that. She also said she worries BLM may reduce opportunities for public involvement in grazing decisions. The BLM’s announcement says the agency seeks to ensure “adequate” public participation “without unduly burdening administrative processes.”
“Ranchers are going to have more of a free pass to do what they want, and the opportunity for the public to push back on their narrow interests will be limited,” Anderson said, based on the text of the notice.
‘Good Regulations and Good Processes’
Mary Jo Rugwell, who retired last year as director of the BLM in Wyoming, said the BLM’s existing grazing regulations work well if the bureau enforces them. “We have good regulations and good processes,” she said. “My concern is that this is an effort to loosen the regulations in a way that might not be good for the public lands.” The BLM hasn’t released a timeline for completing its overhaul of the grazing regulations.
Bob Abbey, who served as BLM director in the Obama administration, said grazing regulations need to be updated to account for various court rulings and changes in federal law. “I am supportive of new language that provides the agency with greater flexibility within grazing permits to allow for changes in range conditions and improving efficiencies in the permitting processes, as long as there is continued emphasis on land health,” Abbey said.
A public comment period on the grazing regulations overhaul ends on March 6 following four public meetings in February. Those meetings will be in small, relatively isolated Western cities: Miles City, Mont.; Las Cruces, N.M.; Elko, Nev.; and Casper, Wyo.
The Horseracing Integrity Act (H.R. 1754), introduced last year by Congressional Horse Caucus co-chairs Representatives Paul Tonko (D-NY) and Andy Barr (R-KY), has officially received formal endorsement by a majority of the U.S. House of Representatives, with 226 Members now cosponsoring the legislation. This bipartisan bill authorizes creation of a non-governmental anti-doping authority governed by representatives of all major constituencies of the industry and responsible for implementing a national, uniform medication program throughout the sport.
“After years working side by side with my friend Congressman Andy Barr to move this legislation forward, I am deeply gratified that our bill to strengthen America’s horseracing industry and elevate the health and safety of our equine athletes is finally getting its due support,” Tonko remarked. “Establishing a single, national approach to medication testing with strong independent oversight and enforcement will help ensure the long-term viability of this sport of kings. The stakes for this legislation are high, especially in regions like ours with historic ties to an industry that contributes billions of dollars and supports thousands of jobs in the New York economy each year, much of it at and around our legendary Saratoga Race Course.”
“The bipartisan support we have garnered for this legislation demonstrates the urgency of needed reforms in the horseracing industry,” said Congressman Barr. “At the end of the day, my efforts are about ensuring the safety of our equine athletes and the integrity of the sport. I will continue to educate my colleagues on the need for transparency and standardization in horse racing and build on this momentum to fight for Kentucky’s signature industry.”
The U.S. horseracing industry exists today under a diverse patchwork of conflicting and inconsistent rules governing medication policies and practices across 38 different racing jurisdictions. Lack of uniformity in the rules of horseracing has impaired interstate commerce and undermined the public confidence in the sport. The Horseracing Integrity Act responds by setting a level playing field for fair competition within and across state lines, assuring full and fair disclosure of information to purchasers of breeding stock and to the wagering public, and providing for the safety and welfare of horses and jockeys, reforms expected to raise the popularity, credibility and international competitiveness of the U.S. horse racing industry.
Tonko and Barr have introduced a version of this legislation since 2015. Companion legislation has been introduced in the Senate and currently has 23 cosponsors.
Chair Grijalva, Bipartisan Group of Lawmakers Write to House and Senate Interior Appropriators Urging Clarity, Funding Limits on BLM Horse Program
Congressman Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and a bipartisan group of lawmakers today wrote to the chairs and ranking members of the House and Senate appropriations panels with oversight of the Department of the Interior (DOI) to urge funding limits and additional clarity on a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) pilot program to manage wild horse populations in the West
The letter is directed to Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Tom Udall (D-N.M.), chair and ranking member respectively of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies; and Reps. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) and David Joyce (R-Ohio), the chair and ranking member respectively of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies.
CLICK HERE to read the letter.
The House and Senate versions of the Interior-Environment appropriations bill – which are currently being reconciled – each include funding for an untested pilot project that calls for a dramatic increase in round-ups and removals. The House bill provides $6 million in additional funding for the program while the Senate bill provides $35 million, and each bill includes report language calling for a total removal of 130,000 horses over the next decade.
As the authors point out, “That plan has never been presented for consideration in the authorizing committees of jurisdiction, would triple the number of horses and burros in holding, and could cost taxpayers billions.” They also note concerns that the House and Senate report language “opens the door to surgical sterilization procedures” that face opposition “by many stakeholders, including veterinarians.”
The authors urge appropriators to take three steps in a final conference version of the funding bill:
In addition to Grijalva, the letter is signed by Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.), who chairs the Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands; and by Reps. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), David Schweikert (R-Ariz.), Grace Napolitano (D-Calif.), Joe Neguse (D-Colo.), Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), Tony Cárdenas (D-Calif.), Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.), Dina Titus (D-Nev.), Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) and Ann McLane Kuster (D-N.H.).