BLM Report: Public lands ranching fails rangeland health standards on a third of rangelands assessed, 33 million acres

A new federal assessment of rangelands in the West finds a disturbingly large portion fails to meet range health standards principally due to commercial livestock operations.  In the last decade as more land has been assessed, estimates of damaged lands have doubled in the 13-state Western area where the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) conducts major livestock leasing.

The “Rangeland Inventory, Monitoring and Evaluation Report for Fiscal Year 2011” covers BLM allotments in Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.  The report totals BLM acreage failing to meet rangeland health standards in measures such as water quality, watershed functionality and wildlife habitat:

  • Almost 40% of BLM allotments surveyed since 1998 have failed to meet the agency’s own required land health standards with impairment of more than 33 million acres, an area exceeding the State of Alabama in size, attributed to livestock grazing;
  • Overall, 30% of BLM’s allotment area surveyed to date suffers from significant livestock-induced damage, suggesting that once the remaining allotments have been surveyed, the total impaired area could well be larger than the entire State of Washington; and
  • While factors such as drought, fire, invasion by non-native plants, and sprawl are important, livestock grazing is identified by BLM experts as the primary cause (nearly 80%) of BLM lands not meeting health standards.

“Livestock’s huge toll inflicted on our public lands is a hidden subsidy which industry is never asked to repay,” stated PEER Advocacy Director Kirsten Stade, noting that the percentage of impairment in lands assessed remains fairly consistent over the past decade.  “The more we learn about actual conditions, the longer is the ecological casualty list.”

Cottonwood Creek, Owyhee Idaho BLM

This is to say nothing about the actual condition of public lands, which some public oversight organizations maintain to be in much worse condition than is reported due to overwhelming pressure on agency employees to overlook grazing impacts or attribute them to something else.

Last November, PEER filed a scientific integrity complaint that BLM had directed scientists to exclude livestock grazing as a factor in changing landscapes as part of a $40 million study, the biggest such effort ever undertaken by BLM.  The complaint was referred to a newly appointed Scientific Integrity Officer for BLM but there are no reports of progress in the agency’s self-investigation in the ensuing months.

At the same time, BLM range evaluations, such as this latest one, use ambiguous categories that mask actual conditions, employing vague terms such as “making significant progress” and “appropriate action has been taken to ensure significant progress” that obscure damage estimates and inflate the perception of restoration progress.  For example, in 2001 nearly 60% of BLM lands (94 million acres, an area larger than Montana) consisted of grazing allotments that were supposed to be managed to “improve the current resource condition” – a number that has stayed unchanged for a decade.

Efforts to demand improved condition for imperiled species, like sage grouse, are met with state and local attempts to influence federal policy by recommending management that ignores the impacts of livestock grazing and BLM’s own politicized attempts to forestall any meaningful management changes to livestock grazing for decades.

“Commercial livestock operations are clearly a major force driving degradation of wild places, jeopardy to wildlife, major loss of water quality and growing desertification throughout the American West,” Stade added, while noting that BLM has historically been dominated by livestock interests.  “The BLM can no longer remain in denial on the declining health of our vast open range.”

Meanwhile, Livestock interests in Washington DC continue to push for less environmental analysis, less public involvement in grazing decisions, and to double the length of grazing permits with the Grazing Improvement Entrenchment Act.


Original PEER Press Release




  1. Ken Cole Avatar

    Keep in mind that the methods that BLM uses to evaluate rangeland health are manipulated to minimize the impacts that livestock grazing has on the landscape and wildlife.

    The Ecological Site Inventory (ESI) method of rangeland health evaluations uses information gathered from already impaired landscapes for its baseline which minimizes the apparent impact of livestock grazing.

    The percentage of impaired “rangeland” is likely much higher because rangeland health assessments have not been conducted on vast acreages of BLM lands, approximately 45 million acres.

  2. Wolfy Avatar

    This is what many of us already knew, good to see it actually come out in a report. I don’t expect to see Forest Service alottment lands doing any better. And I thought grazing was actually good for range (not!).

  3. Ken Cole Avatar

    One other practice that the BLM commonly employs is returning grazing to landscapes that have burned after just 2 growing seasons. This never gives the landscape a chance to recover from fires because the ranchers demand to graze as soon as they can. When areas are closed to grazing after a fire the BLM never reduces the actual grazing occurring on the allotment unless the entire allotment burned. In other words, they say that grazing cannot occur within the burned area but the actual number of livestock grazing isn’t reduced, thereby increasing the impacts on the areas that didn’t burn.

    It’s a GD’d scam.

  4. michael golembeski Avatar

    This is all fine and dandy but where is the enforcement arm of the government outside the BLM stepping in? When will it end, this evidence has been pointed out for more than a decade. Also not to forget the the thousands of animals killed by the “Wildlife Service” considered predators to both cattle and sheep costing taxpayers over a million dollars…….

  5. Rick Avatar

    …the fees that farmers and ranchers pay for “grazing allotments” do not even come close to the administration costs incurred by the BLM and the National Forest Service. These allotments are essentially a form of welfare. Couple this with the amounts of welfare provided under the Farm Bill and you get a significant number of our farmers and ranchers on the public dole. They are not the last/best defenders of the public land. The truth is quite the opposite. Take a look at any stream bed where cattle have been allowed to roam. I live in Wyoming near Cheyenne and frequently hike in the mountains between here and Laramie. Cattle have done serious damage to all of the public streams and, of course, the land itself. The BLM and the National Forest Service do nothing; in fact, they are complicit in the destruction.

  6. Diane Symons Avatar
    Diane Symons

    The RANGE will always be there. There are going to be times when the EARTH has more rain, drought, etc. The earth changes. Anyone with a half of brain would know the animals wild animals protect it. They graze down what is needed to be grazed and leave what is needed to hold the soil alone. I studied horses for over 40 years and worked with rehabilitating wildlife, also took landscape courses. You need gazing to allow new grass to grow horses move on when it is getting to low they move on. The Range has been there before half of you were born and will continue after your gone. Why isn’t the BLM out here in the East controlling all the building on open land, all the farming being done and all the horses we have grazing??? Why is the BLM just out west??????? You have thousands of wild horses in pens…in the middle of the desert no protection from the sun, wind, cold, heat. Your rounding up meat for a business that is dangerous. Tinted meat will some day kill many people. Your also risking other peoples domestic horses in the area. BLM rounds up horses ships them from place to place without coggins test. If one of these horses has ID it will destroy a herd in a week. If you live near a wild horse holding pen with your domestic horse you are putting your horse in danger. BLM does not realize the problems this causes. Not to mention how many they have killed. They use to run them off cliffs. I just want to know why the BLM is not out here managing the open land out here…?????????????????

    1. Ken Cole Avatar

      Because the BLM only manages BLM lands. I don’t know where “out here” is but the BLM can’t manage someone’s private land or land that isn’t BLM land.

  7. mikepost Avatar

    There has always been a substantial difference in the way a lease is treated by a grazer versus how a range owner manages the grazing. Its just like renters versus owners of houses…you know who is most likely to trash the place. Leasees are trying to maximize ecomonic benefit from the lease term…owner/users generally have a longer term more ecofriendly prespective.

    I believe one major issue is that many BLM lands require some grazing for sound ecological reasons (burrowing owls for instance), just not at the level which makes economic sense for a rancher to cover the overhead of using the land. This leaves a no grazing-too much grazing Hobson’s choice which needs to be systemically changed to allow for the middle option.

  8. Real Nice Guy Avatar
    Real Nice Guy

    In the PBS Bison special a few weeks ago, a cattle rancher had the gall to claim that cattle grazing improved the rangeland because cattle are managed and bison are wild.

    1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
      Ralph Maughan

      Ranchers claim to have great faith in management of what they call “natural resources.”

      They are assuming that everything needs management,and,secondly,that if it does need management,that they are in fact presently engaged in doing it.

      I think neither are generally true.

  9. debbie c Avatar
    debbie c

    I noted particularly the comments about damages from grazing being attributed “to other sources”. One of these is the wild mustangs.
    Biologist Craig Downer of the IUCN has just published a book with fascinating speculations on the damage to the range *causes* by the removal of wild horses, which monuting evidence show to be true native species to this continent.
    Amount noteworthy facts to which Mr Downer’s book call attention that the wild horses and range evolved together and there removal from the keystone niche they occupy is causing increasing impacts…such as their suppression of the invasive cheat grass and its relation to fire danger.
    The fact that horses’ grazing patterns as opposed to cattle is eco-friendly rather than destructive is also ignored: wild horse bands range, on average, over 20 miles per day searching forage and water. They don’t lounge around water sources wallowing and fouling them, and inherent differences in the digestive systems of horses vs rumanents produces manures that build the soils in ways other do not.
    Recent research shows the natural predators of horses upon wild horse bands has been greatly underestimated, and currently cattle outnumber horses on the range in the area of approximately 50:1.
    It’s time for all advocates interested in range health to begin talking with each other and building mutual support and dialogue to combine our power to fight the enemies of our rangelands!

  10. debbie c Avatar
    debbie c

    i wish you folks at thewildlifenews would add a share button so i can share your excellent articles on my FB and other places.
    I have sent you emails and recieved no replies, and made other efforts to publicize your excellent exposes and research to where it can do more good in my efforts to advocate for the mustangs, who have been shown by compelling new evidence to be the repository for the remnant of the orignal North American equids and who are essential to the health of western ranges.
    I’m afraid that much of your excellent writing comes down to preaching to the choir, and i find the ‘range wars’ over ownership of advocacy concerning these issues to be as inimical to the health of our western ranges as the fences that are crisscrossing it.

  11. debbie c Avatar
    debbie c

    In clarification of my previous post, while i note that your site itself has a share button i have not found a way to share links to individual articles. People do not pay attention to generalites and are a lot more likely to open and read an article with a specifac title than they are to open a general banner that lacks a hook.

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Brian Ertz