Bureau of Land Management keeps Americans in the dark about grazing impacts

The devastating impacts of public land livestock grazing on native wildlife, soils, riparian areas, water quality, and hydrology across the American west are well-known, even to the agencies that continue to permit it. In fact, while the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the nation's largest land managing agency and its largest grantor of grazing permits, has collected extensive data showing that livestock grazing is by far the greatest driver of water quality degradation, habitat impairment and species imperilment on its lands, it has done little to make these data transparent--and even less to use this exhaustive trove of data to guide its management decisions.

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BLM manages 245 million acres of public lands, and grazes domestic cattle and sheep on 21,000 grazing allotments across 155 million of those acres. By statute, the agency is required to collect information on the health of its rangelands: the conditions of watersheds and soils, the quality of surface waters, the ability of habitats to support wildlife, and the functioning of ecological processes such as hydrologic and nutrient cycles. These Land Health Standards evaluations determine both whether an area meets the agency's standards for ecological health, and, if not, what factors—whether grazing, other land uses, or factors outside the agency's control such as elk grazing--are to blame for the failure. The evaluations are supposed to take place on each allotment every ten years.

 

If your eyes are glazing over and you're getting ready to shut this page down, never to return to the mind-numbingly tedious topic of BLM Landscape Health Evaluations again, wait! That is exactly what the Bureau of Land Management, and the industries that control it, is hoping you'll do. Because the agency knows that it has failed to complete land health evaluations on more than half of its allotments since the requirement was put into law in 1997; because it knows that across the land area it has assessed, more than a third of this acreage has failed the agency's own standards of ecological health due to livestock grazing; because, contrary to law, the agency frequently fails to correct excessive and damaging levels of livestock grazing that have led to repeated failures to attain basic levels of ecological health, before authorizing more grazing at levels that have already led to damage—because these facts are evident in the data that the agency itself has collected, BLM's only hope that the public will continue to think of grazing as a benign, even beneficial use of our public lands is to keep these data obscured.

 

And what better way to do so than to keep them in scattered, incoherent, and inconsistent formats, maintained, if at all, at individual BLM district offices and never digitized or made available to the public except in response to Freedom of Information Act requests submitted by conservation groups who have somehow become aware of their existence?

 

Our western landscapes in all their vibrant ecological complexity are being transformed into barren cow pastures for the benefit of a small, politically powerful industry, and will do so for as long as the American public is kept in the dark about the true impacts of grazing on the web of life we all treasure. The BLM must digitize and make public all records on the health of our public lands, as transparency is the necessary precondition for the transformation in management that our imperiled landscapes so desperately need.