Rampant Grazing Trespassing Goes Unpunished
Whistleblower Faces Suspension for Saying BLM Lacks “Gumption”
Washington, DC — Environmentally sensitive lands at the headwaters of the Rio Grande River in south-central Colorado are being trashed by years of illegal grazing yet the Bureau of Land Management is refusing to pursue any enforcement action. In fact, BLM seeks to discipline a senior range specialist for “discourteous conduct” for protesting this inaction, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), which is leading her legal defense.
For more than 30 years, Melissa Shawcroft has been a BLM Range Management Specialist working in Colorado’s San Luis Valley. She is responsible for administering 70 grazing allotments and 50 grazing permits, with a major goal of protecting the Rio Grande Natural Area from damage caused by livestock overgrazing. In 2012, BLM gave her its Outstanding Rangeland Management Specialist Award.
She has recorded scores of grazing trespass incidents in the San Luis Valley, including 36 separate incidents in just the past year, but her BLM superiors will not impound illegal cattle or pursue any other enforcement action available to it. As a result, stretches of protected habitat for migratory birds, including threatened and endangered species, no longer meet minimal landscape health standards for water quality, vegetation, or wildlife suitability.
On July 28, 2023, Melissa was served with a proposed 14-day suspension without pay for a series of four emails dating back to December 2022 in which she expressed consternation at BLM’s hands-off posture on grazing trespass. In one email, she questioned the agency’s lack of “gumption” and in another whether the agency would “live up to the task of taking care of our resources.” For those emails, she is charged with “discourteous” behavior.
“These charges are ridiculous and say more about the quality of BLM management than they do about Melissa,” remarked Rocky Mountain PEER Director Chandra Rosenthal, noting that illegal grazing has accelerated in recent years, according to reports from Shawcroft and complaints from ranchers who are upset by theft of forage that they are paying for. “It appears Melissa Shawcroft is facing punishment for doing her job which is protecting the public range.”
Today, PEER filed a detailed response to the charges. The designated deciding official is Alfred Elsner, District Manager for BLM’s Farmington Field Office in New Mexico. Apart from refuting specific allegations, the response points out that Melissa’s repeated assertions about BLM shirking its legal responsibilities are covered by the Whistleblower Protection Act.
“Public servants are supposed to be able to alert their superiors to problems without facing reprisal,” added Pacific PEER Director Jeff Ruch, the organization’s lawyer who prepared the response. “Government managers who are unwilling or unable to explain the legality of their actions to employees should not hold positions of authority.”