Is cattle-grazing damaging public lands in the West?

Cattle grazing continues to degrade vast tracts of public lands in the West. PHOTO COURTESY BLM.

Evaluation of rangelands report suggests damage is growing more widespread

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — By some estimates, the amount of western public lands damaged by improper grazing has increased dramatically in the past 10 years, according to a watchdog group that analyzed a recent  federal rangelands assessment.

According to the federal report, slmost 40 percent of BLM allotments surveyed since 1998 have failed to meet the agency’s own required land health standards, with impairment of more than 33 million acres, an area exceeding the State of Alabama in size, attributed to livestock grazing.

The assessment covers grazing allotments in 13 western states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.

The report totals BLM acreage failing to meet rangeland health standards in measures such as water quality, watershed functionality and wildlife habitat:

  • Overall, 30 percent of BLM’s allotment area surveyed to date suffers from significant livestock-induced damage, suggesting that once the remaining allotments have been surveyed, the total impaired area could well be larger than the entire State of Washington; and
  • While factors such as drought, fire, invasion by non-native plants, and sprawl are important, livestock grazing is identified by BLM experts as the primary cause (nearly 80 percent) of BLM lands not meeting health standards.

“Livestock’s huge toll inflicted on our public lands is a hidden subsidy which industry is never asked to repay,” said Kirsten Stade, advocacy director for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group.

Stade said the percentage of impairment in lands assessed remains fairly consistent over the past decade.

“The more we learn about actual conditions, the longer is the ecological casualty list,” she said.

Last November, PEER filed a scientific integrity complaint, alleging that the BLM had directed scientists to exclude livestock grazing as a factor in changing landscapes as part of a $40 million study.  The complaint was referred to a newly appointed Scientific Integrity Officer for BLM but there have been reports of progress in the agency’s self-investigation since then.

According to PEER, more oversight and precise standards for measuring rangelands health. Currently, the agency uses ambiguous categories that mask actual conditions.

PEER’s analysis of the report suggests that vague terminology obscures accurate damage estimates and inflates the perception of restoration progress.

For example, in 2001 nearly 60 percent of BLM lands (94 million acres; an area larger than Montana) consisted of grazing allotments that were supposed to be managed to “improve the current resource condition” – a number that has stayed unchanged for a decade.

“Commercial livestock operations are clearly a major force driving degradation of wild places, jeopardy to wildlife, major loss of water quality and growing desertification throughout the American West,” Stade said. “The BLM can no longer remain in denial on the declining health of our vast open range.”

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