BLM’s Sketchy Satellite-Based Range Management

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Thursday, May 4, 2023
Chandra Rosenthal (303) 898-0798


BLM’s Sketchy Satellite-Based Range Management

Agency Sets the Stage to Renew 1, 372 Montana Grazing Allotments Renewed in One Fell Swoop – No NEPA


Washington, DC — Increasing reliance by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management on satellite-based data in lieu of fieldwork masks widescale abuse of America’s rangelands, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). BLM is using “remote sensing” as the principal basis for wholesale renewals of hundreds of commercial livestock stock permits in areas failing the agency’s own standards for minimal landscape health.

In recent weeks, BLM has evaluated for renewal 1,372 livestock permits on over a million acres of public land in Montana, based upon satellite-generated data. At least 100 permits have been renewed based on this data and we expect more to come. Even BLM’s own experts concede this method is no substitute for field work because –

    • Remote systems do not distinguish well between native grasses and exotic plants, treating increased vegetative cover as a sign of landscape health when it may be just the opposite;
    • These systems oversimplify ecological changes, such as the inability to identify riparian damage caused by livestock versus weather-induced erosion; and
    • There is a lack of transparency in the algorithms and modeling techniques used, which can result in a systematic failure to recognize deteriorating conditions.

“BLM’s historic mismanagement of America’s rangelands will not be improved by fly-by techniques,” stated Rocky Mountain PEER Director Chandra Rosenthal. “This is just another example of BLM grasping for solutions from decades of failing to fund the staff required for competent land management.”

The rosy picture painted with satellite data sharply contrasts with BLM’s own on-the-ground readings. BLM’s own field data shows that more than 50 percent of allotment acres assessed fail land health standards with livestock overgrazing identified as a significant cause. This means an area of 54 million acres, roughly the size of Wisconsin, does not meet minimum standards for water, soil, and native flora, as well as quality, wildlife habitat, yet the permits many of these allotments have just been renewed for another decade with no pre-conditions. The allotments in MT were last assessed more than 20 years ago.

PEER points to a recent livestock permit renewal on lands that BLM found to be in very poor quality. BLM decided, based upon satellite data, that thousands of sheep would be allowed to remain on the land, yet every one of the 450 wild horses had to be removed, even though the horses and sheep eat different vegetation.

BLM is increasingly “batching” permit renewals rather than assessing each allotment. These developments are taking place against the backdrop of a BLM proposal to assess conservation values on all lands, a new approach requiring a much more sophisticated and nuanced approach to land management.

“This is an agency that needs to show it can walk before it starts to run,” added Rosenthal, noting that BLM does not cross-check its data with that assembled and analyzed by the U.S. Geological Survey. “Perhaps it is appropriate that BLM is turning to satellites because its rangelands increasingly resemble moonscapes.”


See 1,372 livestock allotments assessed in Montana fly-by

See 2023 batched renewal of 99 grazing allotments without NEPA

Compare condition of BLM rangelands

Examine recent planned BLM livestock renewal based on satellite data

Read BLM letter eschewing NEPA responsibilities

Review scientific paper on “remote-sensing” technology

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