Cashing in on Degrading Public Lands: How Welfare Ranchers Reap a Beef Bonanza From Weeds They Caused

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Gutting the Grazing Regulations

BLM is preparing an EIS to eviscerate the already weak and often toothless public lands grazing regulations, strip nearly all controls from grazing permits, and add new grazing categories that will increase the livestock burden on public lands and the planet. Current BLM regulations are already heavily weighted towards satisfying the industry’s insatiable greed. A whopping 155 million acres of the West are grazed by fewer than 18,000 BLM permit holders who pay a pittance of around $1.35 per Animal Unit Month (AUM), the supposed amount of forage consumed each month by a cow and calf, or 5 sheep and all their lambs.

Public lands ranchers have long been the front men propping up multiple use/abuse of public lands, the “stewards” providing cover for loggers, miners, and energy developers. Nearly all BLM and Forest Service-managed lands in the interior West are grazed. If a cow or sheep can stand upright without toppling over on a slope, it’s likely grazed. Many people don’t know the beauty and potential of a livestock-free landscape. Grazing is so ubiquitous that the desolate look and depauperate flora and fauna of grazing-beat riparian areas and uplands has become internalized as the norm.

The Trump administration’s regulation gutting move comes as no surprise, with Interior stacked with the likes of Karen Budd-Falen (Deputy Solicitor for Parks and Wildlife said to have been working on the rollbacks ever since her appointment) and acting BLM Director William Perry Pendley @Sagebrush_Rebel. The changes are tailored to legitimize severe dustbowl era grazing practices, and to allow ranchers to exert near-total domination over their use of public lands, waters, and fish and wildlife habitats with few if any controls on herds. Nebulous or newly minted terms are used to conceal the injury that will be inflicted. Outcome Based Grazing, first hyped by Ryan Zinke, is chaotic grazing with no annual controls and no solid plan – but don’t worry, conditions will magically get better at some distant time. Targeted Grazing is a throwback to the pre-Taylor Grazing Act days, with livestock eating plants down to levels so low lands presumably won’t burn. It will cause severe injury to the soil, cryptogamic crusts, watersheds and wildlife habitat, and is certain to worsen weed problems. The industry promotes it as a fire panacea. Flexibility and adaptive management mean tossing any specific grazing schedules or pasture stocking rates out the window.

BLM also plans to meddle with land health evaluations under the Fundamentals of Rangeland Health (FRH). The current FRH regs are the product of Clinton-era “Range Reform” and the 1995 grazing regulations that expanded science-based evaluation of grazing impacts and public involvement. They are part of the only meaningful grazing change since the passage of FLPMA in 1976. Controls on trespass are also to be altered and likely weakened, lest the agency have to offend Bundyesque scofflaw ranchers by penalizing them or revoking grazing permits.

BLM also plans to alter National Historic Preservation Act processes covering cultural and historic values on public lands in unrevealed ways. Because, you know, BLM takes such great care of cultural “resources”.

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Irreplaceable cultural materials may often be subtle, escape notice and are vulnerable to damage from heavy equipment often driven by ranchers building and re-constructing water developments, blading fencelines off, and other activities. I’ve seen rimrock blinds and even rock art overlooked by agency archaeologists when clearances have been done. Vast areas have never had cultural surveys conducted. When surveys do occur, they’re aimed at providing “project clearances”. There are untold thousands of spring-destroying water development projects across the West. Just about every project that digs into a wild land spring to rob water for a pipeline is excavating into a cultural site. Dug up soil is often littered with pieces of obsidian, chert or other lithic material. Livestock trampling churns soil, breaks and dislodges artifacts, increases erosion exposing material to surface looting, alters the scientific integrity of sites, and defiles them. Heavy equipment and burning in BLM’s crazed pinyon-juniper deforestation projects for livestock forage pose serious harm to cultural sites. Now BLM separately is proposing a minimal Categorical Exclusion reviews to fast track these projects.

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Rancher “reconstruction” of spring development, Disaster Peak, Oregon Burns BLM.

No regulation-gutting effort would be complete without invoking “permitting efficiency”, “modernizing”, and “streamlining”, which really mean stifling or blocking public input and participation in decisions. This involves use of more Categorical Exclusions rubberstamping projects with minimal review (no real NEPA analysis, just little checklists) and excluding the public in any way possible, including from the appeals process.

The Twin Falls Times-News reports on BLM’s scheme in the context of new Devil Creek area grazing decisions:

BLM is proposing to expedite permit renewals, allow for more flexibility in how it manages grazing and graze more in order to reduce fuel and slow fires. Environmentalists say that’s a fundamentally misguided approach that will hurt native species, while also doing little to nothing to prevent devastating fires”. As I commented there: “They’re giving the ranchers what they want … What you’re doing is rewarding the permittees who have beat the lands to death so badly.”

Instead of ranchers being held accountable to the public for weeds, fouled water, and sage-grouse sliding towards extinction, they’ll be able to ransack the public lands with even larger herds, and garner greater federal subsidies.

Idaho State Senator Bert Brackett, quoted in the article, complains that the current regs allow public participation: “… Ranchers, including Brackett say that protests and appeals can cause unfair, years-long delays for rangeland improvements such as fencing and water infrastructure”. Brackett’s an expert at exploitation and profiteering. The Air Force/taxpayers bought out Brackett’s BLM permit on a portion of the Juniper Butte allotment for a Bombing Range, then turned around and let Brackett graze cows in large numbers again on the same land when it’s not being bombed. This year, he introduced a bill to eradicate wolves from vast areas, including the Jarbidge country where he grazes: “Emergency legislation was introduced … to allow any Idahoan with a hunting license and a wolf tag to shoot wolves year-round in newly designated wolf-free zones”. “Sen. Bert Brackett, R-Rogerson sponsor of the bill, said “The purpose of this legislation is to try to get a handle on the wolf population … Wolf numbers have continued to increase … Livestock depredation remains unacceptably high … More needs to be done. Ranchers’ livelihoods are threatened by wolves”.

Bloomberg News provides insight into BLM’s move to stifle alternative voices: “BLM wants to ensure that public input doesn’t burden the agency … BLM’s announcement says the agency seeks to ensure ‘adequate’ public participation “without unduly burdening administrative processes”.

Oh, the burden of an agency and mooching ranchers being held accountable to the public on lands that belong to us all. Grazing is a privilege, not a right, despite innumerable articles referring to “grazing rights”. That privilege can be revoked at any time. Yet ranchers, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the Public Lands Council (their lobbying arm) try to brainwash every gullible media person they encounter by spouting off about “grazing rights”.

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Elko Scoping Meeting

BLM commenced unburdening itself of troublesome public elements by holding only four scoping meetings, each expertly calibrated to be far from population centers: Miles City Montana, Las Cruces New Mexico, Casper Wyoming and Elko Nevada. Total population of these cow towns combined: Less than 200,000 people. This was to curtail non-industry input and minimize news coverage that might alert the public, dazed from the barrage of Trump environmental cuts, to the chicanery under way.

I drove from Boise to Elko through Duck Valley on a scintillatingly clear February day. Though it was the dead of winter, there was little snow. Cows were turned out on public land bolting in front of vehicles near Grasmere. Open Range laws are one of society’s many indulgences for freeloading cattlemen. Animals roam on roadsides with no legal consequences. If you have the misfortune to crash into one of these half ton beasts, you (or your estate depending on the collision’s outcome) may be paying a hefty sum as compensation for the prize bull/cow/calf that bit the dust and totaled your car.

The cows were on the main road because the rancher was hauling water to troughs located only 1/10 mile away, creating an intentional road safety hazard. I pulled in to look at the troughs. They were covered with several inches of thick ice chopped open with an axe so the cows could drink. Water hauling is becoming epidemic, along with a return to year-round grazing wherever possible. Ranchers use portable troughs so cows can mine forage from remnant areas with better grass. It’s also a big part of BLM’s Targeted Grazing and flexibility scams – put out troughs, and overnight the surrounding land is churned to dust, with the cheatgrass “controlled”. Or rather, the site is primed for more cheatgrass and new weeds to flourish next year, invade the surrounding sagebrush, and provide an excuse for ever-expanding grazing abuse.

By the time I got to Elko, the meeting parking lot was filled with big diesel pickups, each worth more than the sum total value of all vehicles I’ve ever owned. A roar was coming from the meeting room, which was packed with hundreds of ebullient chattering ranchers and hangers on. I had to pick my way through a sea of cowboy hats, rodeo jackets and Public Lands Council logos. Like the scoping notice’s dearth of information about the specifics of BLM’s plans, the Elko meeting was devoid of substance. PR firm Kearns and West had been hired to put a patina of diversity on the meetings. I knew them from their propaganda work on the Ruby Gas Pipeline a decade ago. The BLM employees that I recognized were true believer range staff, elevated to management positions. These folks had done many favors for the livestock industry over the years.

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Jarbidge Devil Creek Decisions – A Preview of What’s in Store

15 years after Jarbidge BLM set out to produce a new land use plan and grazing decisions (the result of litigation, an injunction, and settlement), BLM is finalizing decisions for 350,000 acres of the Devil Creek region. They mirror the reg gutting proposal elements and are based on severe levels of use and incessant grazing disturbance. They will be the death knell for sage-grouse and other wildlife still clinging to existence here.

The Jarbidge has always been greatly dominated by the industry. Major permittees are the Simplot Ag empire’s welfare ranching arm under various LLCs making the total permits hard to track, and members of the extended Brackett family. BLM in the past purposefully destroyed expanses of sagebrush to plant exotic crested wheatgrass monocultures for forage. Large wildfires flashed through these seedings. Nowadays, in promoting its manic fuelbreak hoodwinkery, BLM claims that crested wheat suppresses fires. The history of what has taken place with big fires in the Jarbidge and many other areas shows this is false.

BLM kept planting more crested wheat, then started letting ranchers graze extra cows to gobble all the grass under an obscure provision of the grazing regs called Temporary Non-Renewable Use (TNR) which is supposed to be for “ephemeral” flushes of desert annuals). After being sued, BLM backed off a bit. Fires continued ripping through seedings and ever-scarcer sage. BLM rehab began mixing in giant-sized densely planted cultivars of native grasses, and sagebrush seed. The coarse cultivars barely resemble the local native ecotype grasses.

While blowing through tens of millions of dollars of fire rehab funds, BLM kept promising to resurrect wildlife habitat. It increasingly relied on herbicides claimed to control cheatgrass germination, first using Oust/sulfometuron methyl until Ousting caused a major crop loss disaster on the northern Snake River Plain. Poisoned soil blew on to grain and sugar beet fields and killed all the crops. So BLM shifted to Plateau/imazapic, often with a kicker of 2,4-D or other toxics. The herbicides minimally impacted cheatgrass, which thrives anyway as continued grazing batters the land. They did work splendidly to prevent expensive sage seed, and residual native seeds in the soil from growing, and often harmed adjacent unburned vegetation.

Pockets of native sagebrush habitat in the Devil Creek country have remained unburned all these years, and somehow survived the fire rehab chemicals. Despite BLM’s best efforts, shrubs are starting to grow back in places. Well, we can’t have that! Cue the new decisions. These often double cow or sheep numbers, include many year round permits with chaotic use, allow up to 60% plant utilization, and punch in 60 more miles of pipeline with 33 new troughs.

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Sagebrush sheltering a cushion of moss green from snowmelt in Devil Creek. Such sites can be destroyed in an instant by intensified livestock grazing and trampling.

Back in 2007, BLM prepared an “Analysis of the Management Situation”, a baseline review of ecological conditions, that was supposed to set the scientific stage for the new land use plan. It described the gruesome toll on wildlife from the existing facilities, and the demise of even jackrabbits in the Jarbidge:

“The loss of 800,000 acres of sagebrush steppe habitat [in fire] adversely affected  variety of small mammals that rely on or use sagebrush including sagebrush vole, pygmy rabbit, and least chipmunk. Remaining sagebrush habitat is fragmented and portions are presently in a degraded condition …Given the current rate in which sagebrush steppe habitat is altered, many species found primarily in sagebrush such as the sagebrush vole, least chipmunk, and black-tailed jackrabbit will be limited to a fraction of their historic range …Connectivity between patches of sagebrush habitat will be lost and remaining sagebrush areas will consist of islands of habitat. This will isolate small mammal populations …”.

Range infrastructure continues to contribute to habitat fragmentation, degradation of habitat, and mortality … Livestock grazing season of use and utilization levels are not optimal for nesting sage-grouse … An increase in water developments throughout the planning area and increased grass utilization levels near those developments decreased tall grass cover used by a number of birds for nesting and winter cover,” and changes to late fall and winter livestock grazing use combined with increases in range infrastructure have reduced nesting cover … Residual cover for bird nesting and wintering is reduced close to troughs … The distribution of water developments in the planning area has implications for the availability of suitable residual cover required by ground-nesting birds … Livestock troughs and storage tanks are a source of mortality to a variety of birds including raptors, owls, and songbirds …Fences are also a source of mortality to hawks, owls, sage-grouse, and other species …Livestock management including season of use, fence locations, and water developments in these habitats are not compatible with the biological needs of mule deer … Pronghorn are adapted to large open expanses and rarely jump fences …. Fence density on public lands in the planning area is 1.02 mi/mi2 and is higher when private land is considered. Snow and/or accumulated weeds can make even fences built to wildlife-friendly specifications difficult or impossible for pronghorn to pass, further fragmenting habitat. …

The 2020 Devil Creek decisions dig a deeper grave for wildlife. BLM plainly termed its scheme Outcome Based grazing in earlier proposed decisions. After our protest comments called BLM out on implementing this without regulations in place, BLM slithered words around, and changed “outcome-based” to “desired outcomes” in the final decisions.

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The wildlife hell BLM’s fire rehab has created in Devil Creek: Crested wheatgrass as far as the eye can see, with cheatgrass mats in the interspaces.

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Windblown weeds blocking pronghorn passage and nearly covering white grouse collision markers, in the maze of many hundreds of miles of Devil Creek fences. AND a pipeline spillover “pond” – cow pocked muck provides sites for mosquitoes that transmit West Nile virus lethal to sage-grouse and migratory birds.

BECO Decisions Mirror Devil Creek

I’ve previously described Bruneau BLM’s chaotic Outcome Based grazing in Battle Creek, East Castle Creek and Owens (BECO) allotment decisions. Records Act documents show elements of these decisions originated with a Public Lands Council-led group of ranchers and agency staff. This lax grazing was called Outcome Based grazing in group communications. BLM incorporated this into the decisions. Simplot is a major BECO permittee, and the company’s public lands manager Darcy Helmick is a board member of the Public Lands Council, heading its BLM committee. Like in Devil Creek, after we protested the biased process and chaos in the BECO decisions, BLM claimed it wasn’t using Outcome Based grazing.

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The BECO allotments include sage-grouse Priority habitat, part of the largest block of Focal habitat in the world, pygmy rabbit sage, redband trout streams, Wilderness, and ACECs (Areas of Critical Environmental Concern). The decisions contain no mandatory measurable use standards to protect fish and wildlife habitats and track annual grazing damage to prevent undue degradation; authorize 93 or more water haul sites; expand permanent cow facilities despite a multitude of existing projects; and allow rampant salt/supplement use that rapidly destroys sage and helps cheatgrass spread. The only mandatory permit terms are total allotment AUMs and type (cow), herd size, and the overall time period cattle can be present on the allotment, similar to Devil Creek permits.

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Oregon Beaty Butte Targeted Grazing

BLM’s Website factsheet promotes the Lakeview Beaty Butte Targeted Grazing fuelbreak project as one of three “Demonstration” projects. WildLands Defense just appealed the BLM’s project authorization, with its 14 miles of pipeline, batteries of troughs at 4 sites, and 2 spring excavation projects. The land includes sage-grouse Priority and Focal habitat, where conservation, enhancement and restoration are supposed to take place. The Beaty Butte region has long been proposed by environmental groups for Area of Critical Environmental Concern designation. Instead, BLM is creating a cow sacrifice zone. Beaty Butte lies between Sheldon and Hart Mountain National Wildlife Refuges, renowned for pronghorn and other wildlife. Hart Mountain has been cow-free since 1990. My friend Steve Herman, who for many years taught a legendary field ornithology course at Hart Mountain, often relates stories of the struggle to achieve this.

BLM didn’t use fire science to determine the site’s suitability or effectiveness as a fuelbreak, or explain what specific lands are being protected. BLM described the area as crested wheat on public land, and cheatgrass on checkerboard private lands that ranchers had plowed up in the past. The “hazardous fuels” was created its own post-fire planting. Though BLM’s precious crested wheat is touted as a premier fire-fighting plant in the agency’s major fuelbreak EIS analyses, suddenly in both Beaty Butte and Devil Creek, the grass becomes an incendiary hazard used as an excuse to heap on more cows. BLM created the problem, and now refuses to rip it out and actually restore the land. Grazing affects fires only in grass communities (not in sage or forest), and only under milder prescribed fire-like weather conditions which are not the conditions when big wildfires burn.

There’s no explanation of how regular cow grazing or wild horse use will be separated from the Demo project, which lies within a Wild Horse Herd Management Area. This seems a rather glaring omission, given that BLM head Pendley famously ranted that the greatest threat to public lands is wild horses:

“They are causing havoc on the land”, said Pendley who mentioned a BLM report on the animals. “They say some land in the West is so devastated and destroyed it will never recover”.

Horses occupy 15% or less of BLM lands. Where they occur, they are often far out-numbered by cattle or sheep. Beaty Butte cows are allocated 26,121 AUMs of forage. Horses get 3000 AUMs. Pendley’s description does aptly fit for the aftermath of a Targeted Grazing project, though. In the midst of a brutal Beaty Butte helicopter round up a few years ago, wild horse advocates called for a boycott of Whole Foods “natural” beef, where permittees sell their cow meat.

BLM claims grazing played no role in causing cheatgrass here, relying on a 20+ year old land health assessment. Project cow numbers are unknown; there’s no threshold of damage to trigger project termination; no plan for rehabbing project damage; and no consideration of alternative fire prevention measures or undertaking actual site restoration.

The Weed Bonanza End Game

A new Idaho Four Rivers land use plan forges ahead proposing a permanent weed grazing gift to welfare ranchers. It plans to allocate Cheatgrass AUMs, and add them on to grazing permits:

“In allotments where invasive annual grasses are common and may represent a dangerous fuel load in some years … additional invasive annuals AUMs would be available on the permit to be activated …”.

If the reg gutting authorizes this new AUM category, ranchers will consider every single Cheatgrass AUM inviolable, just like they do regular permitted AUMs. Management will revolve around ensuring bountiful weeds. They would likely still retain all their existing over-stocked AUMs, so places that haven’t yet succumbed to weeds would suffer high levels of degradation until becoming overrun too. Current feeble attempts at actual restoration will evaporate, including desperately needed fungal, bacterial or other methods of cheatgrass biocontrol, since this would cut into livestock weed gorging potential and profits. Ranchers may soon be taking out bank loans on Cheatgrass AUMs, like they do on regularly permitted AUMs.

Ranchers want no controls on how and when they abuse the public lands. They want to push the public out of having any voice or power, and cash in on the weeds they have caused. It’s long past time to end the ecological madness of domestic livestock grazing in the arid West, before welfare ranchers ruin it all!

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Abolish BLM – Create a New Biodiversity and Climate Mitigation Agency

Any hope of BLM public lands management effectively conserving biodiversity and ameliorating the climate catastrophe is a pipe dream. BLM is systemically implanted with a commodity (cows, logs) and extractive (energy, mining) use agenda.

The industry hacks, lobbyists, end-timers and all-around ghouls infesting Trump’s Interior Department are doing a splendid job dismantling the agency. If political change ever happens, the first step on a path to a Green New Deal or any preservation sea change must be to abolish BLM. Don’t try to resuscitate an agency so firmly rooted in 1800s Manifest Destiny domination.

Walk away. Create a whole new agency and mission. Scrub the hidebound agency from the books. BLM has had 44 years since FLPMA’s passage to get it right. It never really embraced FLPMA’s better elements. Pursuit of change within the confines of BLM would be thwarted by antiquated legal interpretations enshrined in a byzantine appeal system under the Interior Board of Land Appeals (IBLA) cocooned in Arlington Virginia. The Board never really took notice of NEPA, the ESA, the Clean Water Act or other environmental laws, and brushes science aside. IBLA makes rulings based on “preponderance of evidence” and “rule of reason”. There are stacks of IBLA decisions showing that the primary “rule of reason” applied is that if you are an environmental group, you get squished like a bug. What’s “reasonable” to IBLA is whatever BLM’s contorted, often obviously flat out lying documents, or the livestock/energy/mining industry profiteers, may claim.

Look at the sage-grouse plans, BLM’s latest spectacular failure. The Obama-era plans, which Trump of course has tried to weaken further, pretended that grazing, oil and gas development, and other habitat death by a thousand cuts could continue little changed. Instead of stopping or sharply curtailing these activities, the plans scapegoated native pinyon-juniper forests as a primary threat to the birds. Hundreds of millions of dollars a year are spent trying to eradicate an entire forested ecosystem and the pinyon jays and myriad migratory birds and other animals that inhabit this forest. Meanwhile sagebrush habitat degradation rages on unchecked. Sage-grouse populations are collapsing. BLM, never able to unshackle itself from industry, produced plans for slow drip extinction not conservation.

An iridescent Green New Deal phoenix will not arise from the ashes and shards of the post-Trump BLM, no matter how much patching up takes place. Articles have described the road to a Green New Deal running through Interior, highlighting how important public lands are to mitigating climate stress, and to preserving biodiversity. The path to a Green New Deal may run through the physical body of lands under BLM control, but any attempt to keep the same dismal ecocidal agency in place would be a disastrous mistake.

Katie Fite is Public Lands Director with WildLands Defense.

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Lovely dense old growth pygmy rabbit sagebrush north of Elko. Water hauling would destroy this kind of habitat overnight. Concentrated cow use batters and breaks off sage so rabbits are visible to predators, crumbles crusts, and destroys the understory plants so cheatgrass explodes.


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Threatened pocket of Devil Creek Wyoming big sagebrush, Thurber’s needlegrass and cryptogamic crusts. Note the spaces between grass plants, and soil covered with a complex living crust structure – not simplified, flattened or churned by cow hoofs.

Katie Fite is a biologist and Public Lands Director with WildLands Defense.