Livestock Land Abuse Rampant on Public Range

New BLM Figures Show Little Progress in Healing Lands Degraded by Overgrazing

Cross Posted from PEER (Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility) Oct. 6, 2016 by Kirsten Stade)

WASHINGTON, DC - New federal figures indicate that vast expanses of the Sagebrush West remain in degraded conditions due to excessive commercial livestock grazing.  These U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) assessments measuring how well federal rangelands are protected from damaging overgrazing had been discontinued but were restored to resolve an administrative complaint pursued by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

Covering the period from 2013 through 2015, the restored data reflects the number and land area of grazing allotments that are meeting or failing to meet rangeland health standards across 150 million acres in 13 Western states- a total land area approaching that of the entire State of Texas.  They reveal that -

  • More than one-third of these federal rangelands – some 59 million acres or an area about the size of Oregon – have never been assessed. Moreover, the rate of acreage being assessed in these years has fallen by more than half. At the current rate, it would take nearly 20 years to complete the assessments, by which time most previous assessments (which began in 1998) would be outdated;
  • Of total acres assessed by 2015, more than one-third fail to meet BLM’s own Standards for Rangeland Health reflecting minimum quality of water, vegetation and soils, as well as the ability to support wildlife – a total of 40 million acres, approximately the area of Washington State. The overwhelming portion (more than 70%) of range health failure is due to livestock overgrazing in allotments covering more than 30 million acres, an area the size of New York State; and
  • Both annual and cumulative totals over these three years show little improvement, including millions of overgrazed acres where BLM admits “no appropriate action has been taken to ensure significant progress toward meeting the standard.”

“No wonder BLM does not want to display these figures, as they paint a grim picture,” stated PEER Advocacy Director Kirsten Stade, noting that these numbers may be underestimates as they are based on BLM’s own self appraisals which, in many cases, are more than a decade old and count lands “making significant progress toward meeting the standards” together with lands fully meeting standards, thus further obscuring actual on-the-ground conditions. “Even a rosy reading of these numbers suggests that BLM is a lousy landlord for America’s rangelands.”

BLM had suspended its Rangeland Health displays after 2012 claiming that it was developing new data reporting and mapping methodologies. By this year however, BLM was unable to produce any documents describing its efforts to improve range data collection in response to a PEER Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed after the agency failed to answer its request about the status of these efforts. Moreover, the agency rebuffed PEER suggestions that its range health methodology undergo independent peer review.

“It does not require rocket science to track the damage done by grazing cattle,” added Stade, pointing to an online Grazing Data Interactive Map developed by PEER, which displays data from BLM's Land Health Status record system overlaid with high-resolution satellite imagery, permitting users to eyeball current land conditions. “Back in 1995, a network of BLM range specialists called for major reform of the agency’s livestock program in the very first ‘white paper’ issued by PEER. Unfortunately, it appears that little has changed in the last twenty years.”

Kayah Swanson