BLM lands in Oregon. This kind of abuse of public patrimony is legalized vandalism. Photo George Wuerthner 

Western Watershed Project (WWP) recently completed a review of Bureau of Land Management livestock grazing permits that are supposed to be regulated under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976.

With climate change and the West experiencing the worst drought in 1200 years, timely environmental review of public land grazing permits is even more critical.

Yet  the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) regularly reuathorizes the majority of grazing allotment permits with limited or no review. Even in supposedly “special” BLM lands like wild and scenic river corridors, wilderness areas, national monuments, and other land designations, grazing permits are regularly reauthorized without any NEPA review.

With the worst drought in 1200 years, grazing many BLM lands not only damages the public property, but is essentially animal  to livestock cruelty as well. Sonoran Desert National Monument, Arizona. Photo George Wuerthner 

Though the agency is supposed to analyze “grazing health” on allotments, some 65% of BLM allotments are considered “unhealthy.” And this number underestimates the actual number since the only way to get a good handle on allotment health is through the NEPA process.

Even specially designated lands like National Monuments, wilderness and wild and scenic rivers are grazed by domestic livestock. Permitting livestock grazing on such arid lands amounts to malfeasence by the BLM. Grand Staircase Escalante NM, Utah. Photo George Wuerthner 

Utah’s Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument allows 83,000 AUMs (amount of forage a cow and calf consume in a month), and yet not a single grazing allotment has been reviewed since 1996. How is the public or, for that matter, the BLM going to change any grazing detrimental grazing practices if there is no effort even to review grazing permits?

Grazing on public lands is a privilege, not a right. Typically, the privilege of grazing on federal lands is issued to ranchers who have a base property (private land) near the allotment. The permit authorizes a specific time of grazing, type of livestock permitted (sheep, horse, or cattle), and other terms supposed to maintain the rangeland condition.

Every ten years, the BLM, as part of the public renewal process, the agency is supposed to do a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review. In addition, they are also required to review the grazing allotment to determine compliance with Land Health Standards.

For instance, in 2021, 54% of all BLM grazing allotments permits were reissued without ANY NEPA analysis. These allotments cover 67% of the BLM acreage leased as part of the grazing privileges program.

Cattle trashing riparian area on Nevada BLM lands. Photo George Wuerthner

The grazing authorizations permitted without NEPA analysis vary by state. For example, in 2021, 84% of the allotments covering 89% of the Nevada BLM acreage were renewed without any review.

In a sense, this is legalized vandalism of public property.

Livestock damage to riparian area on the Challis BLM district, Idaho. Photo George Wuerthner

The time without any review stretches into decades. For instance, the Mountain Springs allotment on the Challis BLM office hasn’t had a review since 1999.

The BLM is getting away with this questionable practice by using a FLPMA 402(c)2 exemption that allows them to bypass the NEPA process to renew a permit. Unfortunately, in the majority of western states, more than half of the grazing privileges renewals were done under this loophole.

Why is the NEPA process critical to public lands management? First, it is the only time the public (who owns the land) can influence specific grazing allotment practices.

The BLM is supposed to be implementing special practices to protect sage grouse, but without a NEPA review, such policy changes are unlikely. 

It is also the only time that site-specific review occurs and the only time to consider things like protecting endangered species or critical habitat. For instance, even though the BLM is supposed to manage lands under its administration to recover sage grouse, without a site-specific review, it is impossible to implement any changes in grazing management that might benefit the bird.

Cows have eliminated nearly all hiding cover for sage grouse which need a minimum of 7 inches of residual cover. The Beatty Butte Allotment, Oregon. Photo George Wuerthner 

Congress needs to direct the BLM that it cannot reauthorize any grazing permit without first completing a NEPA analysis as required by law. Further, it must provide the funding to the agency to conduct such a review promptly. Without such authorization, we will continue to see the downward degradation of public lands which belong to all Americans.

Indeed this lack of NEPA and continued renewal of grazing privileges is a violation of the public trust and the obligation of Congress to protect the public’s right to oversee any private commercial use of the public patrimony. Remember, grazing on public lands is a privilege, not a right. And with privilege comes the responsibility to answer to the people who own the land.

About The Author

George Wuerthner

George Wuerthner is an ecologist and former hunting guide with a degree in wildlife biology

10 Responses to BLM Fails To Protect Public Patrimony Through Renewal of Grazing Privileges Without Environmental Review

  1. Maggie Frazier says:

    FLPMA from 45 years ago is outdated! As are far too many rules & regulations this agency supposedly goes by or, more often, ignores.
    I hope I’m mistaken, but I seem to remember the idea that Pres.Biden wanted to include grazing allotments as part of the 30 x 30 agenda? As I said I hope I’m wrong. Treating these damaged unhealthy ruined ranges as though they are healthy habitat would be going far far off the deep end – even more so than we have already.

  2. Charles Fox says:

    As you stated, this is legalized, publicly-subsidized vandalism by the BLM. If federal agencies don’t respect federal law why should anyone else?

    Another federal land management agency, the US Forest Service, inadvertently starts huge wildfires as part of a forest treatment regime. These fires spread out of control resulting in hundreds of thousands of acres being incinerated.

    Whether it’s prescribed grazing or prescribed burning, this kind of medicine is clearly far worse than the disease. This is not competent land management in any sane sense.

  3. Laurie says:

    The BLM is one of the most corrupt agencies in our government. I am disgusted with how they torment and torture our native wildlife, wolves, and mustangs all for the sake of ranchers. And Deb Haaland could not care less about the corruption. I believe it is high time to publicly expose certain individual’s corruption besides getting support from legislators. Maybe shaming them will force them to shape up.

  4. Ida Lupine says:

    I can’t believe it. 🙁 If our gov’t agencies cannot uphold environmental policy, who will?

  5. Ida Lupine says:

    Wasn’t sure where to post, but this is concerning too. I thought elk populations were threatened because of wolves, and one of their reasons for Montana’s ‘vigorous’ state hunting policy? Mixed messages:

    https://www.fieldandstream.com/conservation/montana-elk-regulations-lawsuit/

  6. Maggie Frazier says:

    Yeah – very very mixed messages, Ida
    They FEED huge herds of elk in the winter supposedly to keep a “sustainable” population (for hunters?) Its no longer a possibility of disease from the “yarding up” of all those PREY animals – CWP(?) is already there. Good grief, its here in the Eastern states too! Lack of predators anyone? A HEALTHY population of prey animals is the result of a HEALTHY population of predators – healthy ecosystem!
    To Montana AND its governor – killing the predators just might (might) not be a fantastic idea.
    These landowners are going up against a large opposition group – hunters! On the other hand, tourists from this country & other countries dont come to Montana to look at cows or for that matter to kill animals – but they do come to see the WOLVES! And there is far more financial benefit coming from visitors & tourists than there is from hunters.

  7. Martha S. Bibb says:

    Not nearly enough range managers. The feared federal government isn’t funded to police our public lands. Public lands really belong to the fossil fuel industry and their subsidiaries, cattle, power companies, etc. Pretty hopeless to control these money machines that pump millions of dollars into the pockets of legislators, governors, lobbyists. The secret of US corruption…well not so secret.

  8. Robert Raven says:

    Excellent article and you make great points. Grazing on public lands should have the highest standards to preserve and protect the land and the wildlife in the ecosystems. The status quo is damaging public lands and must change. IMO, cattle should be removed from public lands ASAP so that it can be restored to a natural and healthy habitat.

  9. Ida Lupine says:

    Now they’re defining ‘old growth’ forest. I’m kinda holding my breath:

    https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/us/biden-forest-plan-stirs-dispute-over-what-counts-as-old/ar-AAXu1EC?ocid=uxbndlbing

  10. Jannett Heckert says:

    I would like to know how to find the leases in the BLM system. Then we can ask why a review was not done on this lease. Is the public or private information? How do you ask for a review on a lease?

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‎"At some point we must draw a line across the ground of our home and our being, drive a spear into the land and say to the bulldozers, earthmovers, government and corporations, “thus far and no further.” If we do not, we shall later feel, instead of pride, the regret of Thoreau, that good but overly-bookish man, who wrote, near the end of his life, “If I repent of anything it is likely to be my good behaviour."

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