If you've been trolling the news recently, you might think that ranchers still reign supreme over the federal estate, despite the fact that the number of cattle and sheep on public lands has declined by more than half since the 1950s.
In November, for example, the watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility filed a scientific integrity complaint against the Bureau of Land Management -- which oversees most of the West's 260 million acres of grazing allotments -- over a planned study of ecological trends in the region. The agency had ordered scientists to consider the influence of wildfires, invasive species, urban sprawl and climate change, but not livestock grazing, citing "anxiety from stakeholders," concern over potential lawsuits and insufficient data. Then it decided to include grazing after all, but didn't distinguish livestock impacts from those of deer, elk, and feral horses and burros. The Interior Department is investigating PEER's complaint.
Legislation introduced in May by Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., would double a grazing permit's term to 20 years and exempt renewed or transferred permits from environmental review. And last January, the Forest Service and BLM rejected a petition by conservation groups challenging the vastly below-market rates they charge for grazing.
Despite all this, it's clear that public-lands grazing is facing changes. An important trend is the building momentum of a decades-long movement -- one that would give ranchers a way out of public-lands grazing entirely.
In November, Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., introduced the Rural Economic Vitalization Act, or REVA, a sweeping piece of legislation that would allow federal agencies to permanently retire grazing allotments anywhere in the West if ranchers voluntarily waive their permits. (Under federal law, if a rancher simply sells a permit, the purchaser must continue grazing.) Third-party conservation groups would pay compensation at market values, and no more than 100 permits could be retired each year. Two other buyout provisions became law in late December, authorizing voluntary permit retirements within the 25 million-acre California Desert Conservation Area as well as for any domestic sheep grazing allotment located within bighorn sheep range anywhere in the West.
One of the first congressionally authorized buyouts came in 1998, in Arches National Park. In 2009, the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act allowed ranchers in parts of Oregon and Idaho to permanently retire their permits. The broader scope of REVA could help federal agencies respond more quickly to conservation conflicts and emergencies across the West, such as rehabilitation after wildfires. "Permit retirement is here to stay," says John Horning, executive director of the Santa Fe-based WildEarth Guardians, one of the main groups campaigning for retirement. He calls it a pragmatic, market-driven solution. "Its influence will continue to grow, as the economic realities of grazing come up against environmental conflicts over sage grouse, bighorns and wolves."
Permit relinquishment gives ranchers options, say proponents; they can pay off debts, shift to more productive private land, invest in other businesses, or retire altogether. But the Public Lands Council, which represents ranchers, sees reductions in available grazing land as the beginning of the end. "We're adamantly opposed to buyouts that retire land from grazing," says Dustin Van Liew, the council's executive director. "It sets a dangerous precedent. If you lose enough infrastructure, the whole industry could collapse."
Other critics of buyout programs point to potential consequences such as the loss of accompanying private ranch land to development; problems with the maintenance or removal of fences, gates and water sources on allotments; and cultural, economic and social impacts on ranchers and rural communities. The BLM's position on the issue is neutral, according to senior public affairs specialist Tom Gorey.
Still, congressionally authorized buyouts offer important advantages over piecemeal approaches to grazing conflicts, say conservation groups. Some have negotiated their own permit buyout deals with federal agencies, such as in the Greater Yellowstone area, but those retirements typically aren't permanent and must be renegotiated when the agency updates management plans.
Lawsuits are another approach; groups such as the Idaho-based Western Watersheds Project have won many major cases. One recent ruling will force the BLM to consider grazing impacts on sage grouse across 30 million acres of public land; another placed an injunction on grazing on 450,000 acres in Idaho until the BLM completes a new management plan.
The problem with litigation, says Western Watersheds' Brian Ertz, is that court decisions don't provide immediate conservation benefits. Instead, they often result in further delay while the agencies perform additional studies and analysis -- which may or may not create tangible, permanent changes on the ground. And because lawsuits are adversarial, with winners and losers, they don't allow for collaboration. "We are willing to wield the stick with lawsuits, but we'd rather have a carrot there," says Ertz. Nor can lawsuits address one of the biggest issues complicating land-use conflicts -- the fact that multiple federal agencies oversee grazing with different responsibilities, rules and authorities.
Although neither REVA nor Sen. Barrasso's Grazing Improvement Act will likely get through the gridlocked 112th Congress, there are other signs that the livestock industry's political grip may be weakening just a bit. In October, the Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of 2006 rulings overturning Bush-era regulations that did not comply with the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act. Among other pro-grazing provisions, those regulations reduced public participation in grazing decisions, let ranchers acquire water rights on allotments, and gave them shared title to range improvements like fences. "Even though the livestock industry is still entrenched in the West," says Horning, "the ground under its feet shifts every day in ways that diminish its geographic scope and ultimately its political influence."