Before Oregon’s armed takeover, a long-brewing dispute over rangeland health

Most ranchers aren’t taking the same hardline, anti-government stance as the armed militants who took over Eastern Oregon’s Malheur Wildlife Refuge headquarters.

Still, their distrust of federal land managers runs deep — and is deeply rooted in environmental conflict.

Overgrazed and eroded rangelands prompted the creation of the bureaucracy many ranchers now loathe. Federal laws and policies have since tightened over the years to restore the health of public land long used for livestock grazing in the West. As a result, much of the land and water quality in the range has improved.

But consistent data on the health of those rangelands is hard to find. Calls for more and better monitoring come from all sides.

Those who study the economics, ecology and politics of the West suggest a better understanding of current rangeland health would be a step toward restoring trust between federal agencies and the ranchers who lease public land.

“I think it would help,” said David Pyke, an ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Oregon who studies rangelands. But, he added:

“It’s not going to be the magic bullet. Many of the problems that we face on the rangeland in the Western United States can be traced back to the inappropriate grazing that was done in the early 1900s.”

Renting before they can afford

In the decades after the Civil War, ranching boomed on public lands in the West.

Anyone who wanted to start a ranch needed little of their own property and few hired hands on the payroll — thanks in large part to their ability to let their animals graze on federal land.

“Not unlike folks in Portland going out and renting before they can afford to go out and buy their first little house,” Jerome Rosa, director of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, said.

The area of land the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service lease to ranchers now totals roughly the size of Texas and Montana combined.

Decades of unchecked grazing degraded the Western landscape. By 1934, federal law established the regulation of grazing on public lands. That ultimately led to the first grazing districts, then grazing allotments and an agency that later became the Bureau of Land Management.

As America’s environmental consciousness emerged in the 1960s and 70s, the federal government started reining in cattle ranching. Environmental laws required the agencies pay more attention to the health of the land, rivers and native wildlife.

Public lands used for grazing in the West shifted to accommodate multiple purposes – not just cattle foraging but outdoor recreation, water quality and habitat for endangered species. As that happened, many ranchers saw their freedoms shrink and the bureaucracy of administering new laws grow.

The BLM and Forest Service do not have enough staff to handle the load — 262 million acres between the two agencies — so grazing permits are delayed. Frustration and distrust can flare. The relationships between ranchers and land managers can be an exercise in contradictions, Rosa said.

“I guess it’s kind of like a marriage. You have your good days and your bad days. It’s an ongoing effort,” he said.

The search for consistent data

Joe Villagrasa, a rancher in Lake County, Oregon, said today’s practices on public land are not well understood by those outside the ranching community.

“People just need to be educated on exactly what is going on on forest service allotments and on the BLM side of things and how a rancher manages the rangeland,” he said.

That education doesn’t just mean filling city folks in on where their steaks and hamburgers come from. It’s also about giving ranchers and land managers the most basic data about how public rangeland is faring. The lack of data about rangeland health has led to lawsuits, like one filed last summer by conservationists who say cows in Southern Oregon are damaging streams and harming the threatened bull trout that live in them.

Federal managers are required to keep tabs on the health of public rangeland. They’re supposed to visit grazing allotments and record things like the amount of vegetation, erosion and damage to streams. This data is meant to guide decisions about how grazing can continue on a given allotment.

But often the results are sparse and inconsistent. Collecting information like the amount and type of vegetation covering a grazing allotment is expensive — it requires site visits or high resolution aerial photographs. Federal land managers don’t have the resources to do it for all 270 million acres of public grazing land.

“The problem becomes, on a given site, if you want to make some sort of management recommendation, ideally you have reliable data that’s been collected over time and collected consistently over time in the same way,” said Kari Veblen, a professor of rangeland ecology at Utah State University.

When Veblen attempted to study rangeland health, she found the BLM had complete evaluations for 57 percent of grazing allotments. Of the assessments that were complete, she found, many were done using different techniques for counting things like vegetation trends. That can skew results and prevent comparisons across sites.

The lack of data about rangeland health has led to lawsuits, like one filed last summer by conservationists who say cows in Southern Oregon are damaging streams and harming the threatened bull trout that live in them.

“If they go to court and they have reliable data, they can defend their management decisions, but if they don’t have reliable data, it’s very difficult to defend management decisions,” Veblen said.

In 2014, the organization Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) released rangeland health data it obtained from BLM under the Freedom of Information Act. The data, according to the group, had “until now been scattered among BLM field offices, incomplete, inconsistent, error-prone, and poorly maintained.”

That database showed near half of grazing allotments contained acres that did not meet federal land health standards. PEER found about 16 percent of allotments failed because of livestock grazing.

The Bureau of Land Management did not grant an interview for this story or respond to written questions. The agency has taken issue with PEER’s findings in the past, claiming many acres within an allotment could be up to standard, even if the allotment as a whole is not.

The agency says it has developed a new way of surveying rangelands that it hopes will increase consistency and allow for site-specific results that can be put into management.

The first and only release of that data so far, in 2013, shows more rangeland acres in Oregon and Washington are meeting standards than aren’t. Fewer than one percent of acres in the two states have been evaluated thus far.

“The role that this type of data has is that it could help foster some sort of trust,” Veblen said. “If the decisions made are actually backed up with data, one hopes that would actually be compelling.”

Source: Bureau of Land Management

Budget low for rangeland monitoring

John Tanaka, a rangeland economist at the University of Wyoming, said time-consuming regulations and policies are the biggest threat to ranchers’ operations. And without monitoring, he said, “you don’t know what impact your management is having on the resources.”

“To me, that’s been some of the biggest problems,” he said.

But, he said, efforts to collect and maintain good data could go a long way to building trust between federal managers, ranchers and conservationists.

“To me that’s the ideal situation – where they’re all out on the land together, visiting about what they’re seeing,” Tanaka said. “Collecting the data to back up the visual part. I think that leads to best possible outcome out there.”

Of course, he knows it’s easier said than done. Always it comes down to money and resources, something that the agency’s grazing program doesn’t have a lot of.

“If you read every resource management plan that’s out there on public lands – that talks about monitoring,” Tanaka said. “When it comes to implementing, they just don’t have the budget to do it to the extent that’s required.”

This report first appeared on EarthFix’s website. EarthFix is a public media project of Oregon Public Broadcasting and Boise State Public Radio, Idaho Public Television, KCTS 9 Seattle, KUOW Puget Sound Public Radio, Northwest Public Radio and Television, Southern Oregon Public Television and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.