How to Eliminate Livestock Grazing Without Prohibiting Livestock: BLM Has a Plan
By Cat Urbigkit
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is mandated by the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) to manage public lands in a manner “which recognizes the nation’s need for domestic sources of minerals, food, timber and fiber from the public lands” by managing public lands on “the basis of multiple use and sustained yield.”
One wouldn’t know this by reading the BLM’s preferred alternative in the draft Rock Springs Resource Management Plan (RMP).
BLM’s preferred alternative
The plan sets aside 1.3 million acres into areas of critical environmental concern, eliminates mineral development on more than two million acres, excludes 2.4 million acres from right-of-way authorizations and eliminates more than 15,000 miles of roads, trails and linear disturbances.
It imposes a broad array of restrictions on human use, emphasizing nonuse and “natural processes” as its preference.
Livestock grazing is set to take a big hit under the BLM plan.
Water developments for livestock could be made “only if wildlife habitat and resource conditions would be improved or maintained,” but water development for wild horses is allowed.
The agency’s preferred alternative would have the highest number and acres of wild horse herd management areas, support the highest number of horses – up to 1,796 – and allocate the largest number of grazing animal unit months – 21,552 – to wild horses.
While salt and mineral replacement for livestock is currently restricted within 500 feet of water or wetlands, the proposal would restrict this placement within one-half mile of even ephemeral water sources or riparian areas and “within three miles on each side” of any national historic trails, if the site could be viewed from the trail.
Current BLM management calls for wildland and prescribed fires to be “managed in all vegetation types to maintain or improve biological diversity and the overall health of the public lands,” but under the proposal this would switch to “allowing wildfire to function as a natural ecological role” with limits on fire suppression activities and resting “a minimum of five growing seasons from livestock grazing.”
This is up from the currently prescribed two-year rest or adapting management based on a site-specific analysis.
Stocking rates, duration of use
The BLM proposes to establish allotment stocking rates which result in forage utilization levels in areas preferred by livestock, “generally a light 21 to 40 percent utilization level” to provide for wildlife cover and utilization.
The plan prescribes light grazing as “livestock grazing consuming no more than 30 percent of the current year’s growth of forage plants. Light refers to the effect on the landscape, which is measured through utilization monitoring. One may reduce the number of animals by 30 percent and still not achieve ‘light grazing,’ if those remaining animals consume more than 30 percent of the current year’s forage growth.”
If a land health evaluation shows standards are not met and current livestock grazing management is determined to be among the causal factors, BLM will implement a 20 percent reduction annually from the 10-year average of actual billed animal unit months (AUMs) for each permit/lease up to three consecutive years – 60 percent – in active AUMs until standards are met.
Any changes resulting in improved vegetative production will be allocated to wildlife or other resource values “before considering it for livestock,” across the 1.3 million acres set aside under special designations.
BLM acknowledges its livestock grazing management actions would restrict operators by providing for “decreased flexibility in managing livestock and additional management complexity.”
This plan includes a range of restrictive measures, as well as changes to seasons or duration of use and lower utilization rates.
The plan notes, “Requiring implementation of grazing management to improve rangeland conditions could increase operating costs. Higher-intensity, short-duration grazing management programs would increase the amount of herding and range improvement maintenance required by the livestock operator.”
BLM will designate the entire Rock Springs planning area as a “restricted control area,” in which animal damage control activities may be limited to certain methods or times and non-lethal methods will be emphasized.
The plan calls for allowing animal damage control “on BLM land, only if it would benefit special status species or is needed for valid safety concerns.”
Grazing and wildlife
Livestock grazing would be prohibited “in big game parturition habitat during the birthing season – usually from May 1 through June 30.” The plan defines big game to include pronghorn antelope, deer, elk, moose and Bighorn sheep.
The prohibition is worded so it applies not just to designated ranges or special designation areas, but for “parturition habitat” throughout the Rock Springs district.
The plan calls for much more broad seasonal vehicular travel closures.
“Seasonally close vehicular travel in crucial and important wildlife habitats and during crucial and important periods – big game crucial winter ranges, Nov. 15 to April 30; deer parturition areas, May 1 to June 30; elk calving areas, May 1 to June 30; moose calving areas, May 1 to June 30 and raptor nesting areas, Feb. 1 to July 31,” it reads.
Most current travel restrictions are for big game wintering areas, but this plan extends some closures to July 1 for calving areas and to Aug. 1 near raptor nests.
The plan doesn’t fully address either sage grouse or wild horses. Instead it has placeholder sections for these species, as both are subject to separate planning processes. Once those processes are completed, management actions will be added to the draft RMP.
Stunningly, the BLM document declared livestock grazing is “likely to adversely affect” a variety of federally protected species, including four Colorado River fish species as well as Platte River species, including whooping crane, least tern, piping plover, pallid sturgeon and Western prairie fringed orchid.
None of these species or their designated critical habitats occur within Wyoming, but they use habitats associated with downstream waters connected to the planning area.
“Water withdrawals or depletions may occur as a result of the actions associated with livestock grazing management,” the BLM states. “Specifically, water developments authorized as part of livestock grazing management may have minor associated water withdrawals.”
Yet the RMP determines this will “likely adversely affect” these federally protected species.
Eliminating livestock grazing
BLM further notes livestock permittees will view its preferred alternative “as harmful to their abilities to maintain their livelihoods and the customs and culture of ranching, and they also would be concerned this alternative would impact the long-term viability of maintaining livestock grazing as an important part of the traditions and economies of local communities.”
The plan appears to be BLM’s path to eliminating livestock grazing without outright imposing a prohibition.
It’s that bad for permittees.
Domestic livestock grazing is designated by Congress as a “principal or major use” of public lands. FLPMA requires both chambers of Congress be notified if any management decision or action excludes “one or more of the principal or major uses for two or more years” on lands of 100,000 acres or more so Congress can decide whether to reject such action.
If the BLM’s restrictions are approved, the plan may indeed exclude this major use of public lands, but will sidestep Congress in doing so. Perhaps this was BLM’s intention.
The 90-day public comment period on the draft RMP closes Nov. 16 and dates for public meetings haven’t yet been announced. The draft documents can be found online at eplanning.blm.gov/eplanning-ui/project/13853/510.
The Wyoming Legislature’s Select Federal Natural Resource Management Committee is also slated to discuss the draft RMP at its Oct. 6 meeting in Casper.
Cat Urbigkit is an author and rancher who lives on the range in Sublette County.