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.
"It really at a fundamental level provides some stability for the grazing industry by assuring that our permits will be renewed in a timely fashion," said Jim Magagna, executive director of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association.The legislation allows agencies to approve permits in the face of environmental lawsuits against permit renewals.
U.S. Bureau of Land Management officials reported a permitting backlog of more than 5,600 permits nationwide in September. At the time, Congress was required to renew these permits annually.
"The agencies didn't have the resources to meet that requirement, (which) basically put people in a position where they couldn't get their permits renewed in a timely manner," Magagna said. "In some cases, they couldn't graze their livestock for extended periods of time."
Under current law, permitting is subject to environmental analysis prior to renewal of a permit. The new legislation allows federal agencies to approve permits without requiring environmental analysis. Agency range managers will still conduct environmental reviews at their discretion. Magagna said the new law focuses range management on the health of allotments.
"Environmental analysis has been tied to permit renewal, and really that analysis isn't about the permit. It's about the actual range condition," he said. Sen. John Barrasso, the author of the bill, said it will provide added protections for Wyoming ranchers seeking consistency in their operations.
"For too long, our ranching families have been the target of anti-grazing litigation that puts their grazing permits in jeopardy,” Barrasso said.
The legislation passed as part of the National Defense Authorization Act.
Source: Billings Gazette, by Trevor Graff
Wyoming public lands grazers could see shorter permitting times after Congress passed a bill seeking to streamline grazing permit renewals. The Grazing Improvement Act, approved last week, allows the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service to speed the renewal of the agency's 10-year grazing permits.
Livestock grazing has been a part of the western landscape of the United States since settlers arrived. The first recorded livestock policy, according to the U.S. Forest Service, was published in 1905 when the agency was created by Congress. Further and more defined regulation of livestock grazing came in 1934 via the Taylor Grazing Act.
Who sells grazing permits?
Most grazing permits are handled by the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Permits can also be sold on private and state lands, including lands owned by the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA).
Land managers determine the amount of available forage in an area and then sell what they determine are an appropriate number of permits.
What do permits cost?
Ranchers are often frustrated when critics of the grazing program use one number — $1.35 — to argue it’s cheap to run cattle on federal lands. That number is the beginning point for the formula that dictates the actual bill.
The $1.35 fee is applied to an "Animal Unit Month" or AUM — the approximate amount of forage a 1,000-pound cow with a calf will eat in one month. Ranchers are charged based on the number of AUMs they use and how many months they use them. For instance, if a rancher has 1,000 AUMs and runs cattle on federal lands for four months, the fee is $5,400.
Longer-term grazing permit holders are expected to make and maintain improvements on the land, primarily water developments and fencing. Those not using fencing, particularly those running sheep, are expected to patrol their herds and keep them on the proper allotment. Moving the animals from summer to winter range is costly, and livestock lost to predators can reduce potential profits.
Randy Parker, chief executive office of the Utah Farm Bureau, says the $1.35 figure is a "misnomer."
"There are many additional costs. Some years [ranchers] might be in good shape and other years they get beat up pretty good," Parker said. "They are hard working, they love the land and they love to work the crops or livestock. They also do a lot to help the land and the wildlife they share it with." Environmental groups argue grazing damages ecosystems and endangers other species, and have called for restrictions and increased fees.
A 2005 Government Accountability Office report found that the BLM and the Forest Service would have to charge an AUM fee several times higher than the $1.35 to recover their expenditures. The Obama administration rejected a proposed overhaul in 2011, the New York Times reported. More recently, advocates for wild horses have argued grazing livestock, not an overpopulation of wild horses, are more damaging to the drought-stricken western range, contending the horses are being unfairly used as a scapegoat.
Are all grazing permits based on the $1.35 fee?
SITLA is charging $4.78 per AUM for certain areas and $8.32 per AUM on select allotments. So the same rancher with 1,000 AUMs would pay $19,120 for four months.
Terry Padilla, Intermountain Region range director for the U.S. Forest Service out of Ogden, said current private AUM fees run between $11 and $12. The current $1.35 federal grazing fee, according to the BLM, is applied to federal lands managed by the BLM and Forest Service in 16 western states.
The fee is adjusted each year using a formula involving private grazing land rates, cattle prices and the cost of livestock production. The grazing fee drops when the prices are low and increases when appropriate. It can’t drop below $1.35, due to a 1986 executive order.
Is grazing on public lands increasing?
The BLM reports there has been a gradual decrease in livestock grazing over the years. "Grazing use on public lands has declined from 18.2 million AUMs in 1954 to 7.9 million AUMs in 2013," according to a BLM fact sheet.
Parker said Utah’s numbers for livestock on public lands have also declined since the 1940s, when 5.5 million AUMs were allocated. In 2012, Parker said, that number was about 1.3 million.
Source: Salt Lake Tribune, by Brett Prettyman