Op-Ed | The BLM Is Ignoring Its Most Serious Land-Health Problem

Chandra Rosenthal

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Originally published in and reprinted with permission of Salt Lake Tribune.

Erik Molvar and Chandra Rosenthal: The BLM is ignoring its most serious land-health problem

This head-in-the-sand approach to destructive livestock grazing has to stop.


In a recent opinion piece, Bureau of Land Management Director Tracy Stone-Manning claims her agency has a renewed focus on land health. However, she fails to make even a single mention of the most pervasive land-health problem the agency faces: livestock-caused ecological destruction across broad swaths of the western United States.

The Bureau’s land-health problems are well-known. A 2022 analysis by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility shows that the agency is far behind in completing legally-required land-health assessments over the past two decades. We see that of the lands that BLM has assessed, 50% are failing to meet even the minimum standards of rangeland health. BLM says that millions of acres do not meet their land health standards and that livestock grazing use is the leading cause. Livestock are responsible for 72% of degraded conditions on the public lands that BLM has thus far evaluated.

Under federal regulations, the Bureau official responsible for the lands that are failing to meet land health standards must take action before the next grazing season to correct the problems. Instead, the Bureau seems determined to bury the problems, and Director Stone-Manning doesn’t seem to be doing anything about it. We know Director Stone-Manning knows the extent of the impacts of grazing. BLM has its data, and we have told her in multiple meetings over the last two years, yet her recent opinion piece glosses over this enormous problem. In fact, the Bureau recently shelved the long promised grazing regulations revision which may have addressed some of these problems in favor of a closed-door process that excludes the public from any chance to participate in whatever policy changes the agency might make.

The Bureau of Land Management’s failure to manage grazing to achieve healthy lands is a national scandal. The results of the Bureau’s negligence in ensuring land health standards are met include massive infestations of flammable cheatgrass, degraded trout and salmon streams, destroyed plant communities, decimated biological soil crusts and declining sage grouse populations.

It’s compounded by another big issue, one that Director Stone-Manning also failed to mention: An analysis by Western Watersheds Project shows more than half of all Bureau grazing allotments — 54% — are being renewed under a special congressional loophole allowing agencies to skip environmental assessments and rubberstamp the leases to continue up to 10 more years without any changes.

Worse, on lands with sensitive resources, or with conflicts between livestock and other land uses, you might think the agency would be extra-careful. Instead, they use the congressional loophole even more often in cases where serious conflicts exist and where they know land health standards are not being met. In occupied critical habitats for the Gunnison sage grouse, an Endangered Species Act-listed bird, 58% of grazing permits have been renewed without changes. In greater sage grouse priority habitats, 61% of grazing permits got automatic renewal without incorporating the habitat protections promised under the 2015 sage grouse plans.

In bighorn sheep habitats that overlap with grazing leases for domestic sheep — which are prone to livestock diseases that wipe out entire populations of bighorns — sheep grazing gets renewed without changes or environmental review 83% of the time.

In wild horse Herd Management Areas, supposedly “devoted principally but not necessarily exclusively to [wild horse and burro] welfare,” livestock permits get re-upped without changes or analysis 70% of the time.

The fact that these sensitive areas are more likely to get the fast-track, corner-cutting approach than average suggests that the agency is actively trying to ignore long-festering problems and conflicts caused by domestic livestock.

Not only is BLM looking away from the problem, but it appears that it does not want the public to know the scope of the problem either. Recently, PEER sued BLM for the second time for the agencies’ current land health data. If grazing reform is not on the table, we’d like to see how things are shaping up (or not) under the Biden administration.

Director Stone-Manning may be ashamed of her agency’s performance on livestock-caused land health problems, but she shouldn’t ignore them. Livestock are overwhelmingly the biggest cause of land-health problems on Bureau-managed lands, yet her op-ed fails to even mention them as an issue. This head-in-the-sand approach to destructive livestock grazing has to stop.

Chandra Rosenthal / Staff PhotoChandra Rosenthal is the Director of PEER’s Rocky Mountain Office located in Denver, Colorado.

Erik Molvar is executive director of Western Watersheds Project, a conservation nonprofit working to protect and restore wildlife and watersheds throughout the West.

George Nickas, executive director of Wilderness Watch, and Timothy Coleman, executive director of Kettle Range Conservation Group, also contributed to this commentary.
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