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Report: Vast swaths of BLM rangelands don’t meet health standards, millions of acres remain unassessed

Cattle in a green field in front of sagebrush
Bureau of Land Management
The BLM authorizes livestock grazing for domestic horses, sheep and cattle on more than 11,500,000 acres of public land in Idaho.

Newly released data show that much of the grazing land overseen by the Bureau of Land Management does not meet agency standards for rangeland health.

The BLM manages some 245 million acres of land largely concentrated in the American West, and the agency is required to assess the health of the 155 million acres used for livestock grazing. Habitat quality, watershed function and water quality are some of the elements of rangeland health that the agency focuses on.

BLM data obtained by the advocacy group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) shows that roughly half of assessed lands do not meet health standards, with livestock overgrazing cited as the cause for roughly two-thirds of that land. Over 36 million acres had not even been assessed.

Results varied widely between states in the West, with 82 percent of assessed rangeland in Montana meeting standards compared to just 10% in Nevada.

“State-level disparities in rangeland health status may reflect the diverse ecological, socio-economic, and political contexts,” the report reads. “States like Idaho, Nevada, and Wyoming show high percentages of assessed land not meeting health standards due to livestock, which is a consistent theme across the data, suggesting that overgrazing is a pervasive issue. Conversely, states like Montana and New Mexico have higher percentages of land meeting health standards, indicating possible better management practices or less intensive grazing pressures.”

Chandra Rosenthal, the group’s Rocky Mountain director, said that agency “employees are doing their best, but they just don't have the resources and the numbers to do what they need to do.”

“Our rangelands don't have the luxury of time,” she said. “Each year, where there's inadequate action, it compounds the damage to critical habitat and connectivity and land health.”

In a statement to High Country News, the BLM said it is trying to make its assessments “more efficient and effective.”

As a part of the recently finalized BLM Public Lands Rule, land health standards will be applied to all agency land.

“If this is going to be how all of BLM lands are managed, then we really need to see the agency step it up,” Rosenthal said.

PEER’s report also looked at the percentage of allotments renewed through a process that bypasses requirements for an environmental review. The analysis shows that a majority – as high as 93% in Nevada and 85% in Idaho – of allotments were renewed in that fashion in every state analyzed with the exception of Montana. The percentage grew between 2021 and 2023 in every state except for Wyoming.

Rosenthal said that a renewal is the “only time … that the public has the opportunity to look at it carefully at the management of the land and make comments and make recommendations.”

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

As Boise State Public Radio's Mountain West News Bureau reporter, I try to leverage my past experience as a wildland firefighter to provide listeners with informed coverage of a number of key issues in wildland fire. I’m especially interested in efforts to improve the famously challenging and dangerous working conditions on the fireline.
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