A year after Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) filed a complaint with the BLM for intentionally excluding livestock grazing impacts from “Rapid Ecoregional Assessments” which were supposed to look at “change agents” for BLM landscapes, the BLM has put the $40 million assessments on hold and remained silent about charges of political interference.
Even though the BLM has found that one third of their assessed grazing lands don’t meet rangeland health standards due to livestock grazing, the BLM has refused to address these impacts in an honest way.
One of the more common ways that the BLM tries to fool the casual observer is to routinely reissue grazing permits that don’t reduce grazing levels at all. That’s because, when they do cut grazing levels, they cut paper cows, not real cows. Let me explain. The BLM issues 10-year grazing permits that allow ranchers to graze a certain number of animal unit months (AUMs). When the rangeland health assessments are made and find that livestock are responsible for not meeting objectives, the BLM is required to make some kind of change to grazing management. Usually they rearrange the grazing season or build new fences or water facilities. When they do actually decide to reduce permitted grazing levels they only cut AUMs that exist on paper. That’s because ranchers don’t often graze the full number of authorized AUMs, this difference between actual use and permitted use is what the BLM cuts. In other words, they don’t make any change to what is actually happening on the ground.
This type of manipulation is just what happens on the surface. Another way that the BLM goes to great lengths to manipulate the playing field to benefit livestock grazing is to lower the bar that they need to meet rangeland health standards. One of the baselines used to determine what should be expected when evaluating rangeland health is the ecological site description (ESD). This is the document which describes the soils, precipitation, and expected vegetation communities of a particular site. When these baseline descriptions are manipulated, even slightly, they can greatly impact whether the BLM finds the lands to be meeting rangeland health standards. One of the more ridiculous ESD’s that I’ve seen shows that junipers are not an expected part of the vegetation community on Juniper Mountain in the southern Owyhees. Other ESD’s have been manipulated to show less precipitation than actually occurs so that less of certain types of grass are to be expected. In all of the cases I have seen, the manipulations benefit livestock interests.
Other measures manipulated by the BLM are standards used to measure riparian health. Often, when determining whether a riparian area is in proper functioning condition (PFC) or not, the BLM uses very subjective measures that are exposed to the various biases and interpretations of those who conduct the evaluations. When there is so much political pressure to find that riparian areas are in PCF, it is not uncommon to see the weakest interpretation prevail. I often joke that the only standard is that water still flows down hill, which, unfortunately, seems not far from the truth.
Here is PEER’s latest press release:
Landscape Assessments in Limbo after Scientists Told to Ignore Livestock Impacts
Posted on Nov 29, 2012
Washington, DC — The biggest and most ambitious scientific undertaking in the history of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management is languishing after it was revealed the agency directed scientists to exclude livestock grazing as a possible factor in changing landscapes. The agency has also yet to respond to a scientific integrity complaint filed one year ago by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) charging that the exclusion of livestock data constituted political interference.
Launched in 2010 with more than $40 million in stimulus funds, BLM sought to analyze ecological conditions across six “eco-regions” covering the Sagebrush West. There was only one catch: when scientists were assembled BLM managers informed them that there was one “change agent” that would not be studied – the impacts of commercial livestock grazing. BLM managers told stunned scientists the reason for this puzzling exclusion was due to “stakeholders” opposition and fear of litigation, according to documents appended to the PEER complaint. Since that complaint –
- These so-called “Rapid Ecoregional Assessments” have all stalled with no timetable for completion although they were slated to be finished this year;
- To investigate the PEER complaint, BLM tagged Louis Brueggeman, its Fire Management Liaison, to act as “Scientific Integrity Officer.” It is not clear that Mr. Brueggeman has interviewed a single witness proffered by PEER. Nonetheless in an October 12, 2012 email, he said he was “in the process of finalizing the report” responding to the November 2011 PEER complaint; and
- BLM now claims its studies are limited to “four overarching environmental change agents: climate change, wildfires, invasive species, and development (both energy development and urban growth)” but notes “Additional change agents may also be addressed based on ecoregional needs.”
What makes this last bit of revisionist rationale from BLM so questionable is that the agency’s own records show that the primary cause (nearly 80%) for BLM lands not meeting range health standards is damage from livestock, far eclipsing drought, fire, invasion by non-native plants or sprawl – the factors BLM now calls “overarching.” In fact almost 40% of all BLM allotments surveyed since 1998 fail to meet the agency’s own required land health standards due to livestock grazing – more than 33 million acres, an area bigger than the entire State of Alabama. Livestock occupies two-thirds of all BLM lands. Moreover, livestock is directly linked to aggravating drought conditions and spreading invasive species.
“After pledging not to repeat the pattern of political manipulation of science associated with the Bush years, the Obama administration has both embraced that pattern while striving to mask its manipulations though the charade of scientific integrity investigations,” remarked PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, whose organization has likened these investigations to damage control operations rather than objective scientific reviews. “Because they were financed with stimulus funds, these landscape assessments were described as ‘shovel-ready science’ – a term far more apt than originally envisioned.”
Ken Cole, Western Watershed Project’s National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) Coordinator, is a 5th generation Idahoan, an avid fly fisherman, wildlife enthusiast, and photographer. He is also serves as a member of the board of directors for Buffalo Field Campaign and as a member of the Sierra Club Grazing Core Team.
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