The values of western public lands vary considerably and are affected by the commitments of the land management agencies to protect and preserve these values. The majority of federal public lands (70 percent of the total) are managed by the BLM of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), and livestock grazing occurs on approximately 240 million acres of lands under their jurisdiction.
The BLM has established Standards for Rangeland Health (RLH) through 43 C.F.R. 4180 (see section below on agency regulations and handbooks) and many state BLM offices have developed their own standards and guidelines based on the federal regulations which are designed to be minimum requirements. According to BLM’s reported data through 2020 (Figure 1):
The BLM’s RLH data is summarized and updated by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) as a public service, in a publicly accessible database: https://peer.org/areas-of-work/public-lands/grazing-reform/
We stress that the BLM’s current RLH standards are minimum rangeland health requirements and are still not actually enough to ensure that BLM lands are supporting permanent conservation and biodiversity. Many independent studies demonstrate that allotments meeting RLH standards continue to suffer from degradation including depletion of productivity and biodiversity, and upland erosion and unstable, de-vegetated streambanks (e.g. Carter et al. 2017). Additionally, a significant portion of the assessed lands that are "meeting" standards are actually only described as "making significant progress” towards meeting the standards, not actually meeting them.
The USFS has no established standards for rangeland health either at the National, Regional or Forest level and no standards related to permitted grazing to ensure the permanent conservation of those lands with respect to biodiversity or maintenance of fully functional ecosystems. Most national forest allotments receive no regular monitoring or determinations that they are meeting anything other than basic permit terms and conditions such as grazing percent utilization or grass stubble height, and there is no way to broadly monitor or track land health conditions on national forests. Thus, as a first step, the USFS must develop basic criteria to assess the current condition of grazed lands across the entire system. Objective, measurable, and consistent standards must be developed to ensure authorized grazing does not degrade wildlife habitat, decrease biodiversity, or impede the achievement of fully functioning ecosystems.
Another critical issue is that National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) analysis is not being conducted on either the BLM or USFS managed allotments as it should be on public land grazing allotments that are undergoing term grazing permit renewal. In fact, the latest estimates obtained from the agencies reveal that 54% of BLM managed allotments do not have a current NEPA assessment (i.e., no NEPA in at least the last 10 years), and fully 91% of USFS managed allotments do not have a current NEPA assessment (i.e., no NEPA in at least the last 10 years)(Figure 2). There are many allotments where the latest NEPA analysis that has been conducted is 30 or more years old.
Unfortunately, and as we expand further on in the legislative history section below, thanks to the 2015 NDAA rider in Congress, BLM is currently largely abrogating its responsibility in regards to NEPA on grazing permit renewals, so from this point forward there is actually a chance they renewed permits never be assessed under NEPA; and BLM land health assessments have essentially ceased because all renewals are done under 402(c)(2) with no NEPA (see below).
Bureau: From the Bureau RAS Permit Schedule Information Report: https://reports.Bureau.gov/report/ras/42/Permits-Schedule queried in Sep 2021
USFS: From the RIMS - Rangeland Information Management System - database; received through FOIA in January of 2022
It is notable that past GAO reports (i.e. GAO-92-51) have noted this problem with suitable monitoring by the agencies, for example stating in this 1992 GAO report on BLM monitoring that, “Under current BLM policy, all grazing level adjustments are required to be based on monitoring data accumulated over several years. In accordance with this policy, BLM established a 5-year time frame, beginning with the issuance of the relevant grazing environmental impact statement - to conduct the necessary monitoring and implement a grazing decision establishing an appropriate grazing level. This deadline has passed on about 14,500 of BLM'S 22,500 allotments.” And, in a sister GAO report to GAO-92-51 above, documenting progress on allotment monitoring on USFS allotments, the GAO (GAO 91-148) reported similar disappointing results for the USFS: “Of the over 9,200 grazing allotments in the Forest Service’s six western regions, range managers have identified almost 2,200, or nearly one out of every four, that they considered to be in a declining condition and/or overstocked. This recognition of the size and extent of the problem is a valuable first step toward improved rangeland management; however, much more remains to be done. In particular, the Forest Service has made little progress in conducting the follow-up monitoring necessary to identify improper grazing practices and devise corrective action.” However, GAO-91-148 also noted that, “In identifying declining and/or overstocked allotments, the range man- agers based their decisions on their professional judgment because existing Forest Service range monitoring data were not sufficient for such assessments.” This problem was underscored when the GAO staff visited five USFS district offices, where they “found that only 13 percent (21 of 167) of all the allotments were being monitored. While priority attention was given to allotments classified as declining and/or overstocked, even among these allotments only 24 percent (11 of 46) were being monitored.”
According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, over 98% of the western region is currently experiencing some level of drought and over 80% is rated as severe, extreme or exceptional. Many areas are also experiencing long-term drought conditions that have persisted for at least a decade in what some researchers have called the “megadrought” (Williams et al . 2020). However, even this characterization may not accurately depict what is occurring in much of the West which is more akin to “aridification” or a permanent “transition to an increasingly water scarce environment.” Partly in response to this crisis, on April 16, 2021, Interior Secretary Debra Holland signed Secretarial Orders 3398 and 3399 for the purposes of creating a “Department-wide approach to the climate crisis and restoring transparency and integrity to the decision-making process” and to emphasize that the “Department’s commitment to honor the Nation’s trust responsibilities and conserve and manage the Nation’s natural resources and cultural heritage must be guided by the best science.”
Despite this shift to a “new normal” of a more arid West described above, the BLM does not have livestock drought management strategies that include conservation and protection of public lands, biodiversity, imperiled species, and other natural resources. Thus, in October of 2021 a coalition of conservation groups sent a letter to Secretary Debra Holland about the problematic continuation of grazing as usual on BLM lands while enduring this crippling drought. This letter requested that, because of the 20-year mega-drought that is gripping much of the western U.S, the Department of Interior issue an emergency directive requiring all BLM Districtsexperiencing multi-year, extreme or exceptional drought to substantially reduce or curtail stocking of livestock to relieve pressure on native biodiversity and natural resources. The letter also requested that the BLM defer future livestock grazing on allotments experiencing extreme or exceptional drought until vegetation is determined to have recovered to pre-drought conditions, and that the DOI continue the process of developing comprehensive regulations for the BLM’s grazing program that address the climate crisis, and conserve, protect and restore public lands, biodiversity, and natural resources. The letter underscored that new regulations, subsequent policy, and management directives must include mandatory provisions to reduce grazing during periods of extended drought and accountability measures to ensure compliance.
Incidentally, the BLM already has the necessary authority and direction to address this current drought crisis through IM-2013-094, the underlying authorities of the Taylor Grazing Act, and the Federal Public Lands Management Act which all require the agency to prevent overgrazing and ensure that public lands are managed in a manner that prevents undue and unnecessary degradation. Despite the current regulatory, legislative and legally binding direction under which the BLM operates, action at the field office and state office level is either nonexistent, inconsistent, or insufficient to address the current situation. Moreover, in many cases Resource Management Plans are decades old with insufficient standards, and capability and suitability analysis that do not reflect current conditions. This problem is compounded by the fact that the vast majority of grazing allotments are operating under outdated authorizations that enshrine stocking rates developed over half a century ago based on dubious forage production studies and livestock that weighed nearly a third less than today’s animals.
The conservationists’ letter to the Secretary concluded with a request for a formal rulemaking process to develop comprehensive regulations for the BLM’s grazing program and ensure that the new regulations, including mandatory actions and agency accountability measures, combat the climate crisis and conserve and protect public lands, biodiversity, and natural resources.
In February of 2022 the same coalition of conservation groups sent a similar letter to the USFS Washington Office. This letter, similar to the one described above to Interior Secretary Holland, laid out the general problems surrounding the mega-drought we are experiencing, specific impacts the drought is having on flora, fauna and habitat, and the lack of a suitable response regarding grazing management by the USFS. Specifically, The letter pointed out to the USFS that because grazing acts as a drought intensifier, with effects generally extending well beyond allotment boundaries, authorization of any grazing during drought should receive public consideration of environmental consequences, and public scrutiny. The letter also pointed out that the regulations that govern USFS grazing currently provide sufficient authority to address potential harm to natural resources in circumstances such as prolonged drought. 36 CFR § 222.4 - Changes in grazing permits (a)(8) states that the Chief of the Forest Service is authorized to, “(M)odify the seasons of use, numbers, kind, and class of livestock allowed or the allotment to be used under the permit, because of resource condition, or permittee request. One year's notice will be given of such modification, except in cases of emergency.” There is no doubt that current drought conditions and the potential for irreparable damage to occur on USFS managed lands constitutes an emergency
Unfortunately the USFS is not acting within its current authority, and ability, to reduce stocking rates in the face of the crippling drought. Reliance on undisclosed voluntary reductions or range staff/permittee negotiations in grazing use is neither sufficient nor a legal response to resource damage due to grazing during drought conditions. While the maintenance of a livestock grazing program may be required by the USFS, the authorization of grazing at levels that damage public lands and deplete native wildlife and native plant species is a violation of the multiple use and sustained yield principles under which the USFS operates and constitutes “unnecessary or undue degradation of the lands” (43 U.S.C. 1732 Sec. 302 (b))
Reliance on the land use planning process to address the current situation is also an inadequate response. Notwithstanding the fact that the planning process often takes years to complete and that many forest plans are currently decades old, even the most recent forest plans developed under the 2012 planning rule, and during this prolonged period of drought in the Western United States, have failed to include specific management direction for changing grazing authorizations in response to drought.
Specific and unequivocal direction from the national office of the USFS, including measures to monitor and ensure compliance, are needed without delay. This should include automatic direction for removal of livestock from USFS allotments during Extreme and Exceptional Drought.
As described in an April 14, 2021 letter from a coalition of conservation groups to Interior Secretary Holland, there is an acute need to reform livestock grazing administration in Wilderness Areas. The 111.7-million-acre wilderness system is administered by all four federal land management agencies: Forest Service (36.7 million acres), National Park Service (44.3 million), Fish and Wildlife Service (20.7 million), and Bureau of Land Management (10.0 million). Wilderness protects naturally functioning ecosystems, largely free from the human manipulation prevalent on other public lands. It provides some of the best wildlife habitat on the continent. It protects water quality and supply both within and outside Wilderness. And it is vital in a changing climate as it provides a least-disturbed baseline for research, a high-value carbon sink, and essential refuge and migration pathways for species adjusting to climate-related habitat changes. When it comes to climate action, Wilderness protection is critical low-hanging fruit.
Extensive research demonstrates that wilderness values are particularly harmed by livestock use, and the extent of livestock grazing in Wilderness presents significant barriers to Wilderness protection. Of the 52 million acres of Wilderness in the lower forty-eight states, livestock are authorized to graze 13 million acres—a quarter of the total acreage (Wilderness Watch 2019). Providing only one-tenth of one percent of all forage fed to livestock in the United States, grazing in Wilderness hardly contributes to the U.S. livestock industry, yet its impacts to the wilderness system are significant. Also, Of the 13 million acres of wilderness lands within grazing allotments, about 3 million are vacant allotments that have not been grazed for many years— sometimes decades. Ranchers have waived those permits back to the USFS or BLM, but the agencies have not permanently closed those allotments. These long vacant allotments are at risk of being reassigned.
The Congressional Grazing Guidelines (CGGs) attempted to address some of the management challenges specific to wilderness administration, such as clarifying that while wilderness designation on its own cannot justify curtailment of grazing under the CGGs, the agencies may curtail grazing in response to environmental impacts just as they can outside of Wilderness. Unfortunately, the federal agencies’ increasingly loose interpretations of the CGGs have undermined this intent. For example, the CGGs have been interpreted to mean it is more difficult to control or reduce grazing or eliminate specific allotments in Wilderness than in areas outside of Wilderness. In addition the CGGs’ limited allowances for motorized use and structures have been interpreted far too liberally, allowing ranchers to use pickups or ATVs for routine grazing management, like herding or monitoring, and to construct and maintain facilities inside Wilderness. In addition to CGG implementation issues, agencies continue to attempt to fill vacant wilderness allotments, including allotments where third parties bought out grazing privileges with the agreement that grazing would be permanently retired. And agencies continue to kill predators, including threatened grizzly bears, inside Wilderness to protect livestock.
Trespass cattle on federal grazing lands. As summarized in GAO Report 16-559, the frequency and extent of unauthorized grazing on BLM and USFS lands are largely unknown because according to agency officials, the agencies prefer to handle most incidents informally (e.g., with a telephone call) and do not record them. Despite this, GAO report 16-559 found that the agencies’ databases contained information on nearly 1,500 incidents of unauthorized grazing where formal action was taken by the agencies’ range program or law enforcement staff for grazing years 2010 through 2014. Unauthorized grazing incidents were recorded in the agencies’ databases when the agencies billed a penalty for unauthorized grazing or prepared a law enforcement report. However, agency staff told GAO that they handle most incidents informally—their preferred practice—and do not record them in databases or consistently in paper files, because, in part, they do not consider it a priority. As a result, the agencies have incomplete information on the extent of unauthorized grazing. Federal internal control standards call for clear documentation of all transactions and other significant events. Until the agencies require that all incidents of unauthorized grazing be recorded, including those incidents resolved informally, BLM and the Forest Service will not have a complete record of unauthorized grazing incidents with which to identify any potential pattern of violations. This is a very serious problem.
As summarized in GAO Report 16-559, the frequency and extent of unauthorized grazing on BLM and USFS lands are largely unknown because according to agency officials, the agencies prefer to handle most incidents informally (e.g., with a telephone call) and do not record them. Despite this, GAO report 16-559 found that the agencies’ databases contained information on nearly 1,500 incidents of unauthorized grazing where formal action was taken by the agencies’ range program or law enforcement staff for grazing years 2010 through 2014. Unauthorized grazing incidents were recorded in the agencies’ databases when the agencies billed a penalty for unauthorized grazing or prepared a law enforcement report. However, agency staff told GAO that they handle most incidents informally—their preferred practice—and do not record them in databases or consistently in paper files, because, in part, they do not consider it a priority. As a result, the agencies have incomplete information on the extent of unauthorized grazing. Federal internal control standards call for clear documentation of all transactions and other significant events. Until the agencies require that all incidents of unauthorized grazing be recorded, including those incidents resolved informally, BLM and the Forest Service will not have a complete record of unauthorized grazing incidents with which to identify any potential pattern of violations. This is a very serious problem.
The federal grazing fee is based on animal unit months (AUM)—the amount of forage that a cow and her calf can eat in 1 month. Currently, the federal grazing fee is $1.35/AUM . A 2004 GAO report (GAO-05-869) found that the 10 federal agencies’ (with 98% of allotments studied administered by the BLM and USFS) grazing fees, which were $1.43 per AUM in 2004, generated about $21 million in fiscal year 2004—less than one-sixth of the expenditures to manage grazing that year. The GAO report found that the grazing fee BLM and the USFS charge is generally much lower than the fees charged by the other federal agencies, states, and private ranchers, for example reporting that at the time state fees ranged from $1.35 to $80 per AUM and private fees ranged from $8 to $23 per AUM.
In response to that problem, the Congressional Research Service (2019) recently undertook a more comprehensive analysis of the problem with the grazing fee. They found, just as the 2004 GAO report did, that BLM and FS typically spend more managing their grazing programs than they collect in grazing fees. For example, $79.0 million was appropriated to BLM for rangeland management in FY2017. Of that amount, $32.4 million was used for administration of livestock grazing, according to the agency. The remainder was used for other range activities, including weed management, habitat improvement, and water development. For the same fiscal year, BLM collected $18.3 million in grazing fees. The FY2017 appropriation for FS for grazing management was $56.9 million. The funds were used primarily for grazing permit administration and planning. FS collected only $7.6 million in grazing fees during FY2017 (Congressional Research Service (2019).
The CRS 2019 report does a good job summarizing the current debate over the federal grazing fee:
“Grazing fees have been contentious since their introduction. Generally, livestock producers who use federal lands want to keep fees low. They assert that federal fees are not comparable to fees for leasing private rangelands because public lands often are less productive; must be shared with other public users; and often lack water, fencing, or other amenities, thereby increasing operating costs. They fear that fee increases may force many small and medium-sized ranchers out of business. Conservation groups generally assert that low fees contribute to overgrazing and deteriorated range conditions. Critics assert that low fees subsidize ranchers and contribute to budget shortfalls because federal fees are lower than private grazing land lease rates and do not cover the costs of range management. They further contend that, because some of the collected fees are used for range improvements, higher fees could enhance the productive potential and environmental quality of federal rangelands.” (Congressional Research Service (2019).
The 2019 CRS report touches on the legislative history of attempts by Congress to raise the federal grazing fee, so far without success. As pointed out in the “What Congress Can Do” section below, it's important that the effort to increase the fee continue. As pointed out elsewhere in this toolkit, the further degradation of our public lands with the combination of climate change and continuing livestock grazing as usual will make it all the more obvious that the subsidies to prop up higher stocking rates than the land can withstand, will simply not be able to continue going forward.
As summarized by Kerr (1998), grazing on public lands is not stable. Few, if any, bright spots are in the future of federal public land grazing permittees. Beef is losing market share to chicken, pork, seafood, cheese and vegetables. Concerns about human health and food safety (heart disease, obesity, e. coli, mad cow disease, etc.) are affecting the beef industry. Subsidies to farm and ranching industries are being phased out on private lands, which does not bode well for subsidies on public lands. The average age of the permittees is rising. Environmentalists are increasing their attention on livestock grazing and winning more lawsuits that result in removing cattle from public lands. Conflicts with recreationists are increasing. Enforcement of water quality standards is increasingly likely. More endangered species listings are inevitable. More litigation is probable. New planning and management processes by federal land management agencies will possibly reduce livestock grazing numbers and certainly place more restrictions on timing, location, etc. The fee on grazing is likely to rise, as bidding by environmentalists on state grazing leases will increase pressure to reform the federal grazing fee (Kerr 1998). In short, there are many reasons why more and more ranchers will be looking for the opportunity to be bought out of their federal grazing permits, and soon. In some cases, federal grazing permittees may want to give up their grazing permits simply because it’s the best choice for their business model or their life circumstances. However, due to the structure of the grazing program and the investments made in their permits, this may be financially untenable without some form of compensation.
Given the vagaries of the cattle business, operators would benefit from the flexibility to not exercise their permits, or compensation for retiring their interests in them (basically, the AUMs tied to the base property attached to the federal grazing permit increases the value of that base property). This is not possible under existing law, which essentially mandates "use it or lose it" (Kerr 1998). Current law and regulations either do not allow for the retirement of grazing permits or make the process unnecessarily difficult and uncertain.