Hearing targets role of livestock grazing for federal lands, rural America
Washington, D.C. – On July 12, the House Committee on Natural Resources Subcommittee on Federal Lands, chaired by Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.), held an oversight hearing targeting the importance of grazing on public lands and in rural America.
The hearing, titled “The Essential Role of Livestock Grazing on Federal Lands and Its Importance to Rural America,” brought Idaho Lieutenant Governor Brad Little, University of Montana Professor Dave Naugle, Western Watersheds Project Executive Director Erik Molvar and Arizona Farm Bureau President Stefanie Smallhouse to the Longworth House Office Building in Washington, D.C. to discuss the challenges associated with grazing, as well as the impact of grazing on the land.
McClintock commented, “We’ve already seen the damage a policy of benign neglect has had on our forests, and now we see this same destructive ideology being turned against our rangelands.”
“These attacks, orchestrated by well-funded political groups, are creating a paralyzing environment which sound scientific land management decisions are abandoned – both by ranchers and public lands managers – for fear of endless lawsuits filed by serial litigants,” he continued.
The Subcommittee strives to restore access to and management of public lands and to restore the federal government as a good neighbor to communities impacted by public lands, and McClintock said, “Cattle grazing is integral to all three objectives.”
Longevity and conservation
Little commented that his priority is to ensure his fifth-generation ranching family is able to continue ranching on the land.
“One of the things I’ve learned in life – in both politics and ranching – is change is inevitable, but adaptation is necessary for survival,” he said, noting that survival of ranches is necessary for management of public lands, including protecting the range through watershed enhancement, fuels reduction and more. “Ranchers are an indispensable part of management of public lands.”
“Since the dawn of the West, ranchers have been involved in managing land with public agencies,” Little continued. “Unlike government administrators, who are only there for a few years, ranchers have been on the land for generations.”
Little provided examples where the removal of ranchers from the land has resulted in wildfires and loss of access to public lands.
“If ranchers are regulated off, our country loses the most effective and efficient public lands managers,” he added. “Ranchers with grazing permits provide an irreplaceable service to the land, the taxpayer and to those who enjoy our public lands. The regulatory environment from Washington, D.C. plays a critical role in determining the efficacy of not only those benefits but also the economies and communities that depend on them.”
Naugle noted that wildlife conservation is compatible with ranching, going further to say grazing has actually helped wildlife population, including sage grouse, which is his focus. Naugle also serves as the independent, third-party science advisor to USDA’s Sage Grouse Initiative and says scientists have evaluated the effectiveness of prescribed grazing, along with other practices, publishing results in 37 peer-reviewed publications within scientific literature.
“Three of these publications evaluating prescribed grazing provide new scientific evidence that further supports the importance of ranching in sage grouse conservation,” Naugle said, noting that work of the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) based on research has been modified to reflect that perspective. “Because grazing management still matters for a host of ecological reasons, NRCS will continue implementing grazing plans that help keep ranchers profitable and productive, and the agency remains open to new and proven ways to reduce persistent threats to grouse through sustainable grazing.”
Also testifying during the hearing, Eric Molvar, executive director of Western Watersheds Project (WWP), said, “I would like to point out grazing is not universally good for public lands, and in fact, it has many detrimental effects.”
Molvar continued that cattle are “mal-adapted and ill-suited” for western public rangelands. He asserted the result is stream degradation, because cattle congregate on streambanks.
Further, Molvar blamed livestock for the spread of cheatgrass, which has been the cause of wildfires across the West.
“While oil and gas development garners the greatest amount of media attention, as it represents a spectacular environmental train wreck, livestock grazing is like a slow and invisible cancer that is insidiously and inexorably killing native ecosystems over vast areas,” Molvar said.
McClintock asked Molvar if grazing should be banned outright on public lands, and Molvar responded, without solutions to the “severe detriments” from livestock grazing, it should be considered whether cattle grazing has a place on the landscape.
Conversations with Congressmen
In open questioning, Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) asked Molvar about the grazing rates on public lands, to which Molvar said rates are too low.
“Why are we vastly subsidizing 22,000 families in the West to produce a product with so many detriments?” asked Molvar, further asserting that rates have only increased by six cents per animal unit month (AUM).
Molvar additionally noted that grazing trespassing is “rampant.”
“It’s time that Washington starts implementing some accountability in their livestock grazing,” Molvar said, suggesting that federal rates should mirror private land grazing rates, which can we upwards of $20 an AUM.
However, Bishop asked if the quality of lands were comparable between BLM lands and private grazing lands.
Little explained that homesteads were developed around water sources, while public lands are often very dry, providing less available grass that is also lower quality.
“I appreciate ranching has long-supported many families and lent a unique character to our country, but at the same time, we have to balance that with the multiple use mandate and sustainability of our public lands,” commented Rep. Niki Tsongas (D-Mass.), mentioning that a bill currently in Congress would provide for buy-out of allotments, at a fair market price, to willing sellers. “Would a voluntary buy-out program be beneficial for family ranches?”
“We would never advocate for wholesale buy-out of permits,” Little said. “If we permanently close off an allotment, we lose that tool and the initial attack we have for fires, noxious weeds and other rapscallions that may be on the land.”
While voluntary buy-out of allotments in small-scale, specific situations might make sense, he cautioned that the negative effects may far outweigh benefits.
“Buy-out is a move that provides the loss of grazing as a tool, and this should never be the first choice,” Little commented. “It should be the last choice, because some resources are just too valuable.”
Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.