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Report: BLM skips mandatory analysis of grazing impacts

The Bureau of Land Management leases 155 million acres of public land for livestock grazing.
Greg Shine, Bureau of Land Management
Flickr Creative Commons
The Bureau of Land Management leases 155 million acres of public land for livestock grazing.

The nonprofit Western Watersheds Project says the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has been skipping environmental reviews on grazing permit renewals for years, leading to the degradation of millions of acres of public lands.

In a new analysis of public data, researchers tracked how often government employees analyzed the environmental impact of livestock grazing permit renewals. They say permits were renewed last year on more than half of available public lands in the West without any analysis, even though environmental reviews are required by the National Environmental Policy Act.

According to Josh Osher, who directs public policy for the Western Watersheds Project, the problem results from a loophole designed to give the BLM time to catch up on a multi-year backlog.

The National Defense Authorization Act of 2015 mandates that when a BLM field office is unable to complete environmental review before a grazing permit expires, “it must continue the terms and conditions of the expired permit by issuing a new permit with the same terms and conditions.”

Osher says the number of environmental reviews has been going down ever since.

“There’s clear evidence that the lands under the bureau’s protection are unhealthy due to grazing,” he said. “The bureau’s land managers are just willfully disregarding the law.”

A BLM spokesperson declined to comment on the report.

The findings come on the heels of a separate analysis of internal records by the watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility that found more than half of the lands managed by the bureau failed its own environmental standards. It found livestock grazing was the primary reason behind poor landscape health.

President Joe Biden’s administration has also been criticized by environmental groups for failing to raise grazing fees.

Osher says the root of the problems across Western rangelands lies with inadequate funding and a lack of attention on the grazing program.

“The agency has staffing problems, we know that this is true,” he said. “But there’s also, internally, decisions being made about staffing and priorities that have shunned grazing, and elevated other issues.”

That could soon change. In his recent budget request, Biden has asked Congress for money to hire hundreds of new employees at the bureau.

In the meantime, Osher says the lack of environmental reviews effectively denies taxpayers the opportunity to weigh in on the management of collectively held land in the West, because NEPA includes a public comment period.

“It’s really the only time that the public has an opportunity to be involved in new management decisions,” he said.

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, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM 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.

The photo included in this story is licensed under Flickr Creative Commons.

Copyright 2022 KUNR Public Radio. To see more, visit KUNR Public Radio.

Bert Johnson
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