Controversial analysis of BLM range report rejected

May 25, 2012

An environmental group which bills itself as a champion for government agency environmental whistleblowers has released a controversial analysis claiming that recent Bureau of Land Management (BLM) data on rangeland health reveals that 33 million acres of public lands are failing rangeland health standards due to livestock grazing.

“Livestock’s huge toll inflicted on our public lands is a hidden subsidy which industry is never asked to repay,” stated Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) Advocacy Director Kirsten Stade. “The more we learn about actual conditions, the longer is the ecological casualty list.”

In the May 14 report, headlined Livestock’s Heavy Hooves Impair One-Third of BLM Rangelands, PEER asserted that BLM’s Rangeland Inventory, Monitoring, and Evaluation Report for FY 2011 showed not only that cattle were the leading cause of BLM land failing to meet land health standards, but that cattle were responsible for unacceptable environmental conditions on 33 million acres, a staggering 79 percent of all BLM lands analyzed that failed to meet the standards. PEER blamed the situation on too-cozy relations between the livestock industry and BLM, noting that “BLM has historically been dominated by livestock interests,” according to the PEER press release.

“Commercial livestock operations are clearly a major force driving degradation of wild places, jeopardy to wildlife, major loss of water quality and growing desertification throughout the American West,” Stade concluded. “The BLM can no longer remain in denial on the declining health of our vast open range.”

PEER’s dramatic take on the BLM document was subsequently given broad exposure when E&E Publishing, a national environmental and energy news outlet, ran the story the following day under the headline “Grazing blamed as leading cause of rangeland degradation in BLM report,” giving PEER’s analysis the benefit of the doubt.

However, BLM is now taking steps to discredit PEER’s report, maintaining that PEER’s claims are based on poor understanding of the agency’s data.

In particular, BLM has called PEER’s assertion that some 33 million acres (approximately 30 percent of all BLM lands surveyed) “suffers from significant livestock-induced damage” simply false, pointing out that PEER failed to understand that BLM assesses rangeland health by allotment, not acres.

“It’s false, because they misinterpreted …the information in the report,” said Bob Bolton, BLM senior rangeland management specialist. “They made some assumptions that were in error, and they misunderstood some information.”

According to Bolton, BLM currently assesses rangeland health allotment by allotment, not acre by acre. In any given allotment, said Bolton, even an isolated rangeland health problem will result in the entire allotment being labeled as “failing to meet standards.” In other words, a 100,000acre allotment may fail to meet standards because a 10-acre riparian area is in need of restoration. PEER’s report did not take the distinction into account, instead reporting total number of acres in all allotments that had had a rangeland health issue within the reporting period, which spanned over 10 years. The error, Bolton indicated, would lead to a significant overestimation.

Further, Bolton stressed that out of the 1,925 allotments which were reported by BLM to have had rangeland health issues linked to grazing in the past 10 years, the vast majority (1,663) of these are allotments where appropriate actions to address the problems had already been taken, in some cases, years ago. A small minority of the allotments (262) were reportedly still awaiting management solutions.

“They actually combined those two [categories] together into one,” observed Bolton. “They didn’t acknowledge the fact that one category says that appropriate action has been taken.”

In many cases, Bolton pointed out, range issues would simply no longer exist on these allotments after the appropriate action has been taken. Bolton also explained that PEER’s assertion that livestock grazing was “driving degradation of wild places” was overblown. In many cases, rangeland health issues can be adequately addressed by simple fixes, such as fencing off a riparian area, or shifting a grazing rotation.

“You can’t take a land health standard assessment and conclude that land is in a total degradation if it’s not met,” Bolton explained. “They’re making the assumption that everything is just ruined. It may be that we’re just not making [standards] by a short margin. It’s not saying that all the land is destroyed or degraded.”

As it turns out, the real picture on the BLM rangelands is far more positive than the PEER report would lead one to believe, according to a subsequent written BLM response clarifying the agency’s findings.

Of BLM’s total 21,330 grazing allotments, 15,665 allotments (or 71 percent) have been evaluated. Of those allotments, fully 12,352 (or 79 percent) are meeting rangeland health standards. At one time or another within the 10-year reporting period, 12 percent of all evaluated allotments were reported to not have met rangeland health standards with livestock being a significant factor. But of these, corrective actions were taken on 86 percent, leaving only 262 remaining allotments (or 2 percent of the total evaluated) with rangeland health issues due to grazing that have not yet been addressed.

PEER’s apparent misapprehension of BLM’s data has suggested to some interested parties that BLM needs to do a better job of explaining and representing their findings.

“We would have liked to see some analysis from the agency themselves, and have actually asked that they comment on the figures that they’ve released,” said Public Lands Council Chief Executive Officer Dustin Van Liew. “There needs to be some context and analysis provided by the agency to allow for a better understanding of what they actually show.”

As it turns out, BLM is already taking steps in this direction. Acknowledging that the current system is less than perfect, Bolton stressed that BLM will soon be implementing a more accurate monitoring system that documents how many acres are meeting standards, which may help to avoid the current confusion.

As for the remaining allotments still in need of management solutions, Van Liew emphasized that ranchers are interested in helping BLM to meet their goals.

“We always advocate for reaching or moving toward rangeland health standards, and our members are more than willing to work with the agencies in making adjustments to ensure that rangeland health standards are moving in the right direction,” Van Liew added.

Advertising itself as “a national alliance of local, state, and federal resource professionals,” PEER’s selfdescribed mission is to protect government employees who call out government agencies for environmental wrongdoing. Membership, however, to the Washington, D.C.-based organization is open to anyone, not just public employees. PEER is affiliated with the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund, and advocates actions such as “zeroing out” the USDA Wildlife Services budget to prevent “slaughtering wildlife,” described as an “unjustified subsidy” to the livestock industry on the organization’s website.

PEER’s founder, Jeff DeBonis, is also credited with founding Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, a watchdog group of “concerned citizens, present, former, and retired Forest Service employees, other government resource managers, and activists working to change the Forest Service’s basic land management philosophy.” — Andy Rieber, WLJ Correspondent