A new map shows rangeland health West-wide

Searchable BLM reports and satellite images for 20,000 grazing allotments.

 

When the Bureau of Land Management ordered the removal of cattle from public rangeland this summer near Battle Mountain, Nevada, the state was in its third year of severe drought. Conditions were too dry to sustain the number of cattle that were grazing there, the BLM contended. Locals responded in part by announcing a “Cowboy Express” ride from Bodega Bay, California to Washington, DC to protest federal overreach and to demand that local District Manager Doug Furtado be ousted.

Disagreements like the one in Battle Mountain are hardly novel in Western politics. But this week, a new tool to understand livestock impact on public lands was thrown into the mix. Washington, DC-based non-profit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) released an interactive map that collates over 45,000 BLM records that diagnose 20,000 allotments. The map is seven years in the making, the result of Freedom of Information Act requests PEER and Western Watersheds Project put to the BLM.

Damage to the land from livestock can be seen in satellite images.

According to the map, 29 percent of allotted land, or 16 percent of the number of allotments, has failed to meet BLM standards of rangeland health due to impacts of livestock. Those assessments are based on a specific set of criteria, including things like watershed conditions, water quality, soil health and habitat for at-risk species.

Shaded areas indicate where rangeland has failed to meet BLM health standards between 1997 and 2013.

In addition to looking at the macro-scale numbers of how much land has passed the BLM health test, the new map shows satellite images of each individual allotment—a way to “sky truth,” as PEER puts it, what the agency is reporting. So, if the BLM says a piece of land is doing just fine, or if the BLM claims the landscape is taking a beating, anyone can zoom in to look for themselves and get details like the number of cattle on how many acres. Soil and vegetation disturbances from mining, agriculture, livestock or off-road vehicles are visible in the satellite images. A group of allotments in eastern Montana, for instance, are categorized as healthy, but are also clearly being used to grow crops. And they’re sitting in prime habitat for Greater sage grouse—a species that U.S. Fish & Wildlife is currently considering listing as endangered. (There’s an optional map layer that allows you to overlay grouse habitat.) PEER Advocacy Director Kirsten Stade says examples like this raise the question of how an area dedicated to crops or livestock could be considered “meeting all standards,” when the majority of native vegetation has been supplanted.  

In some cases, the map shows a whole bunch of unhealthy, red-tinted, allotments butting against green-tinted, healthy ones. That kind of scenario may be an indication that adjacent district offices are interpreting rangeland health differently and calling “healthy” what the manager next door may deem “unhealthy” or vice versa, even though they’re in the same ecosystem with similar needs. In the case of Argenta, where the cowboy express came from, the fact that the allotment in question (which itself appears to have an incomplete assessment and tinted grey) is surrounded by either red or un-assessed land “suggests that maybe Doug Furtado wasn’t so far off in his call that grazing needed to be reduced on this allotment,” Stade said.

The Argenta allotment is highlighted in blue. Red areas failed to meet BLM rangeland health standards because of livestock impacts. Yellow allotments failed for non-livestock reasons, and orange allotments failed for unknown reasons. Grey areas have either no or incomplete assessments, according to PEER's data.

For its part, the BLM responded to an initial PEER report from 2012 with qualms about the non-profit’s methodology. In any given unhealthy allotment, there may be a number of acres that are actually healthy, despite the fact the parcel on the whole is deemed a failure. But the non-profit was grouping all acres as unhealthy, which the BLM said skewed the data to be worse than it actually was. The BLM website says that the agency is creating its own mapping system that will show rangeland health acre-by-acre, instead of by allotment.

The agency also says it has “taken action to correct grazing management on 86 percent of the 1,925 allotments where livestock grazing was determined to be the cause for not meeting land health standards.”

The PEER map includes blue-tinted areas that represent Greater sage grouse habitat, underneath the tens of thousands of tinted grazing allotments.
One reason PEER is publicizing the new data set is to push the BLM to be more consistent in its rangeland health evaluations. The agency is supposed to complete assessments of each allotment every decade, but many of the allotments PEER inquired about had reports that were 15 years old or more. The project is also meant to bring information together that, until now, has been scattered throughout district field offices across the country, PEER says. Tools like this one could help the land agency take a more landscape-scale approach to management,
Blue highlights indicate where BLM rangeland health assessments mentioned oil development. The PEER map can be searched for a range of impacts to ecosystem health.
looking at full watersheds rather than just one piece at a time. And best-case scenario, these types of tools will add another layer of real information to the often emotion-driven debates around public land use in the West.

For more High Country News coverage of public lands debates, see our recent investigation, Defuse the West, which looks at threats to public-land employees and confrontations with local land users.

Tay Wiles is the online editor at High Country News. Homepage photo of the Argenta allotment in Nevada courtesy Western Watersheds Project.