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Toxic Range: the BLM’s Growing Chemical Addiction

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BLM is escalating herbicide use on public lands in the wake of the September 2015 Sage-grouse Plan Amendments and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Not Warranted Finding for ESA listing. A primary agency excuse for forsaking sage-grouse ESA protection is the pipe dream that new habitat will be created through radical deforestation, and that fuelbreaks will stop fires. The Finding lays it out:

Cumulatively, the FIAT assessments of the five priority areas identify more than 16,000 km (10,000 mi) of potential linear fuel treatments, approximately 2.99 million ha (7.4 million ac) of potential conifer treatments, more than 2 million ha (5 million ac) of potential invasive plant treatments, and more than 7.7 million ha (19 million ac) of post-fire rehabilitation (i.e., should a fire occur, the post-fire rehabilitation identifies which areas BLM would prioritize for management) within the Great Basin region …

The deforestation acreage is larger than Vermont. Native pinyon and juniper trees are treated as weeds, rather than a forest community vital for biodiversity and buffering climate change effects. Real weeds will have a field day in the wake of the bulldozers, bull hogs, masticators, chain saws, mowers, roller-choppers, brush beaters and “prescribed” fire unleashed for subduing woody vegetation. Lands will be doused with herbicides to try to keep cheatgrass, rapidly advancing medusahead, and others from thriving in the wasted, bared soils and hotter, drier, grazed sites. The fuelbreaks will raze sage and trees across a distance greater than that between Patagonia and the North Pole. These cleared zones will parallel many roads on public lands, further fragmenting wildlife habitats and providing fertile grounds for flammable annual grass in the chronically grazed arid landscape, and for human-caused catalytic converter, target shooting and other fire ignitions.

BLM is further reverting to a 1960s worldview of farming-style manipulation of wild lands, mainlining chemicals in support of its treatment habit. This distracts attention from the fact that the new BLM Sage-grouse Plan Amendments allow livestock grazing and many other threats to the bird to continue with little real change, despite a torrent of litigation claiming otherwise. In support of the folly, NRCS and BLM have concocted elaborate models deeming native forest and sage expanses unhealthy or “at risk”. After clearing, the land may be seeded, often with a mix of exotic forage grass and “cultivars”, not the local native plant ecotypes, but plants bred to be big and tough and a livestock forage boon. Places purged of woody plants will be embedded in a landscape “compartmentalized” (BLM’s term) by fuelbreaks.

Livestock grazing is a primary cause of weed infestation and dominance across public lands. But BLM refuses to deal with livestock as a cause of weeds. PEER very recently filed a complaint with CEQ and rancher sycophant Interior Secretary “what’s good for the bird is good for the herd” Sally Jewell over BLM’s denial of the climate effects of cattle and sheep grazing.

That’s only part of it. BLM is a weed denier of the worst sort, and willfully blind to the adverse climate effects of its land clearing. Instead of addressing cattle causes of weeds, BLM’s time honored method is to spray and walk away, leaving livestock free to graze and trample sprayed land in short order, churning soils and copiously defecating, ensuring a fresh batch of weeds takes hold.

2007 Weed EIS and PER Set the Stage

In 2007, BLM completed a Westwide 17 State Weed EIS and risk assessments for expanded herbicide use tripling sprayed acres, along with a Programmatic Environmental Report PER bedfellow laying out burning, chaining, mastication, bull hogging, mowing, brush beating, harrowing, “biological thinning” (dustbowl style grazing) and other severe weed-causing disturbance assaults on native vegetation communities. Environmentalists implored the BLM to address weed causes, employ passive restoration and minimize spraying. BLM ignored this, saying weed causes were dealt with in “allocations” of Land Use Plans. The many Plans issued since then do not address causes of weeds in divvying up “forage” and other allocations, like this and this. Risk assessments based on minimal info, predictably found the chemicals were safe for public land. The PER’s ecological impacts were never analyzed. The fore-shadowed radical treatment disturbance, now funded by hundreds of millions of dollars of sage-grouse and fuels funds, is laying waste to the West. BLM’s project rationales are a constantly moving target.

The Oust Debacle

As BLM was preparing the Weed EIS, it became embroiled in litigation with southern Idaho farmers over a crop catastrophe. BLM had ballyhooed DuPont’s Oust herbicide as a panacea for cheatgrass. Prominent range staff that had long pushed exotic forage plants as desirable on “rangelands” worked closely with DuPont to fine-tune the chemical.

“Oust is the best tool we’ve ever had, yes sir,” says Scott Anderson, a supervisor in the BLM’s Shoshone, Idaho, office. “There’s nothing like it.”… “In the mid-1990s, BLM officials began using it experimentally against cheatgrass, which the agency had been fighting a losing battle to control. They discovered that when sprayed immediately after a fire, Oust was nearly 100% effective in suppressing the growth of cheatgrass for at least a year. “That gave us an opportunity to come in and reseed the sagebrush and other desirable vegetation,” explains Mike Pellant, a BLM rangeland ecologist in Boise.

Oust kills plants by preventing roots from taking in water and nutrients from the soil.

It did this splendidly when the wind blew herbicide-infested soil onto crop fields and poisoned the earth. After the farmers finally figured out what had happened, BLM declared an Oust moratorium. Prolonged litigation ensued, with over 66 days of testimony in federal court. A jury trial and verdict found BLM bore 40% responsible, and Dupont 60%. Damages of 17 million dollars were awarded to the farmers. But the District Court ruling was appealed, and reversed by the Ninth Circuit in 201l. Courthouse News described the long ago initial filing “a day late and 17 million dollars short”.

“Idaho farmers filed their complaint a day too late to collect damages from the government after their crops were caught in the crossfire of a federal agency’s herbicidal battle against non-native grass, the 9th Circuit ruled Thursday … The farmers’ claims against the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) are “forever barred,”.

Oust affected so much ag land that damage was detected. Most of the spraying takes place in remoter wild places where drift effects could escape detection.

Meanwhile, BLM kept on spraying, purposefully blind to weed causes. The 2007 Weed EIS blessed Plateau (Imazapic) as the new cheat panacea. Mowed and roller-chopped sage, prescribed burned forests and sage, and wildfire areas were doused with Plateau. It was applied over untold 100,000s of acres following fires. But there is still a hitch. Plateau kills “desirable” seedlings similar to Oust. So at the same time BLM has been spending tens of millions of dollars on seeding burned lands ostensibly for sage-grouse, it applied a potent lingering seedling killer. A scientist letter responding to BLM’s unprecedented 67 million dollar rehab boondoggle for the Soda Wildfire pointed out:

First, spraying a pre-emergent herbicide (imazapic/Plateau) may not have much effect on cheatgrass in 2015 because it germinated prior to application. Second, and much more importantly, imazapic will kill any seedling forbs that emerge from the seed bank. This will decrease abundance and diversity of forbs which are necessary for sage grouse …

Plateau also kills sage seedlings and the native seeds in the soil seedbank. Without sage, the sage-grouse, pygmy rabbits and other wildlife are doomed.

Oregon: A Special Case, and Sacrificing the Eastside

Oregon citizens and activists have often been alert, vocal and litigious in opposition to public and private lands herbicide campaigns that take place in the big dollar timber country on the west side of the Cascades. So BLM deals with ecosystems and people there a bit more lightly. In 1984, an injunction in Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides et al. v. Block prohibited herbicide use by BLM and the Forest Service in Oregon. BLM prepared a new EIS for four herbicides in 1987, and the injunction was modified, allowing 2,4-D, dicamba, glyphosate, and picloram. In 2010 a new EIS expanded herbicides. It has fewer protections for lands, waters, fish, frogs, wildlife and people on the eastside of the Cascades. BLM added 10 more herbicides west of the Cascades, but did not allow aerial spraying, vs. 13 more herbicides east of the Cascades and allowed aerial spraying.

In synch with its 2007 EIS, BLM went far beyond treating “noxious” weeds in Oregon. “Management objectives” ballooned: the control of all invasive plants; the control of plants as necessary to control pests and diseases …; the control of vegetation to meet safety and maintenance objectives …; and, the treatment of vegetation to achieve specific habitat goals for Federally Listed and other Special Status species

East of the Cascades, 2,4-D, Dicamba, Fluroidone, Imazapic, Imazapir, Picloram could be sprayed aerially (note this is fewer chemicals than inflicted on the rest of the states aerially in the 2007 EIS). There is so-called “restricted” use of Chlorsulfuron, glyphosate, hexaninone, metsulfuron metyl, tebuthiuron “only where no other means available” … “where practical, limit glyphosate and hexaninone to spot applications”. Weasel word language is pervasive, providing leeway to wiggle out of promised protections. If livestock might eat the plants, BLM is to apply “at the typical rather than the maximum rate”, but no word on what to do about native ruminants “don’t apply some chemicals where wild horses are present, or herd them out of the area”. There is minimal protection for recreation – a campground might be fleetingly signed. Protections recommended for reptiles and amphibians were not adopted, even provisions leaving bits of untreated habitat as refugia were scuttled. BLM is increasingly outsources spraying, through agreements with Counties and “cooperators”. Protections that appear to have survived could readily fall by the wayside in practice.

The Spray and Walk Away Path Forward

Now BLM has just released a Final EIS adding three more bizarrely named chemicals (rimsulfuron, fluroxypyr, aminopyralid) for use across the West in its War on cheatgrass, medusahead, prickly pear (which with along with the saguaro are a keystone desert species), pigweed and others. NOTE: I can’t get this link to work now

BLM claims these chemicals are safer for the environment and human health than those already in use. Safe, like aminopyralid that can be spread through manure? Or safe like post-emergence burndown rimsulfuron that is touted as great for mixing with others of its ilk, and for which even BLM’s assessment admits a drift risk for non-target vegetation? Just like Oust and Plateau, rimsulfuron kills seedlings of the very plants that wildlife must have to survive. There are only a few days left to weigh in on this latest EIS (blm_wo_vegeis@blm.gov). Meanwhile, step-down EA analyses expanding aerial spraying and broadening herbicide use are proliferating at the BLM District level.

BLM insisted their were minimal downsides to the banished Oust, the fallen from favor Plateau and the rest of the toxic lot, including woody plant killers like Tebuthiuron, which caused a profusion of cheatgrass in Nevada sage purging reminiscent of the 1960s. The current chemicals and all their associated carriers, adjuvants, breakdown products and other associated toxins, including unknowns from mixes of multiple active chemical ingredients that BLM allows, had been deemed safe in the 2007 EIS. Now that BLM has had a revelation that they are less safe, it is not dropping a single chemical.

What will the 7 million acres of new treatments, 10,000 linear miles of permanent bleak fuelbreaks, and rehabbing of failed fire rehabs (often using many of the same old techniques) do to the land? And how much spraying will accompany forest clearing for porkbarrel biomass? Beyond the butchered landscape, desertification and destroyed habitat, it may often be impossible for people to avoid unwanted exposure to herbicides on visits to public lands. Access roads will be bordered by FIAT-ordained fuelbreaks for long stretches. Cleared of “brush” and seeded with exotic forage grass, they will be favored cattle loafing areas. Aerial herbicide use in wild land settings with fickle weather ensures drift onto the road and dust, onto camping sites, killing non-target vegetation, polluting water in springs and streams, and contaminating sage-grouse, antelope and pygmy rabbit foods. New irreversible native species habitat loss and expanded habitat fragmentation will take place. Public lands will bear an even greater resemblance to an intensive cattle ranch operation under this desolate paradigm. How long will agency grazing climate and weed denial go on? Or denial of the climate consequences of deforestation right here at home? But look everybody, over there, a bright shiny new million dollar treatment saving sage-grouse.

Katie Fite is Public Lands Director with WildLands Defense in Boise, Idaho.

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