President Donald Trump’s pick to manage the U.S. Department of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, is promoting a new “outcome-based” livestock management initiative on the public lands managed by the department’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The agency has solicited its grazing permittees to submit their ranching operations for nomination to be among the 6 to 12 projects nationwide that will be part of this “demonstration program.” The stated purpose of the initiative is, “to show that livestock grazing on the public lands can operate under a more flexible framework than is commonly used in order to better reach agreed upon habitat or vegetation goals.” It might sound good, but, as always, the devil is in the details.
The BLM’s announcement of the initiative raised an immediate red flag because it included a statement from Zinke wherein he claimed that, “Farmers and ranchers know the wildlife and the land they work better than anyone.” Really? They know it better than the department’s professional wildlife biologists? And if ranchers know so much, then how come livestock grazing has done more damage to wildlife habitat on public lands than all other commodity uses combined? (Grazing is far more ubiquitous on public lands than mining, drilling, and tree cutting.)
The obvious message behind Zinke’s initiative is that the BLM’s current management of public lands grazing is unfair to ranchers. How? They don’t specifically say, other than to imply that it’s too rigid. The BLM explained that, “Grazing authorizations typically emphasize process and prescription. The new authorizations will instead emphasize ecological outcomes, allowing livestock operators more flexibility to make adjustments in response to changing conditions such as drought or wildland fire.” So it seems they believe that a proven prescription to achieve a desired ecological outcome is bad because it’s too strict, while more flexibility will magically provide an alternative to removing livestock from public land that has burned or is experiencing drought.
The BLM’s announcement also said that Zinke’s initiative will give local “stakeholders” a say in these demonstration projects, but it didn’t explain what that meant. Under existing federal law, the agency is required to employ the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) public planning process when it implements a new livestock management plan for a grazing allotment. The NEPA process is important because it provides the general public with their only significant opportunity to provide input into livestock management on public lands. Zinke’s initiative is a demonstration project, so it’s unclear if NEPA applies, but it seems they are trying to invent a new public participation process, when a good one already exists.
I called the BLM’s national office on November 6 to ask them if the general public will have any opportunities to participate in the formulation of these new “flexible” grazing management plans. I was told that they don’t know, and that I should call my state BLM office to ask that question. So then I called the Arizona BLM office. They told me they don’t know either because they haven’t received any direction yet from the national office.
Perhaps my inability to get an answer about Zinke’s grazing initiative is simply because it’s a new program and the BLM hasn’t sorted out the details. But it’s a proposal from the Trump administration, and Donald Trump has already proven to be the most anti-environment president in modern history, and a threat to the perpetuation of the multiple use doctrine on our public lands. So I have good reason to fear that the general public’s opportunity to participate in this demonstration program will be restricted. It’s important that it’s not, because the BLM manages more than 21,000 public lands grazing allotments on millions of acres across the West and they plan to expand the use of this new process if they deem it to be “successful.”
On March 28, 2018, the BLM announced announced 11 demonstration projects in six states for the Trump administration’s outcome-based grazing authorizations initiative.
Did you know the federal agencies charged with managing our public lands permit livestock grazing in desert ecosystems?
In Arizona, for instance, where the predominant ecosystem is desert, more than 87% percent of the 14.2 million acres managed by the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) are permitted for livestock grazing, while the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service permits grazing on more than 67% of the 11.2 million acres they manage in the state’s national forests. (Arizona’s Tonto, Prescott and Coronado National Forests include millions of acres of hot Sonoran Desert.)
Almost all of these public lands ranching operations graze cattle, which require significant amounts of vegetation and surface water to survive. Since deserts receive less than 10 inches of rain per year, it’s obvious that permitting livestock grazing in the desert is a dumb idea. In 1991 the U.S. Congress’s Government Accountability Office (GAO) agreed when it issued a report (RCED-92-12) that analyzed the BLM’s permitting of livestock grazing in the desert. The GAO concluded that, “the lands we visited provided enough evidence of the high environmental risk and low economic benefit associated with livestock grazing in America’s hot deserts for us to conclude that the program as currently conducted merits reconsideration.”
Permitting cattle to graze in the desert can cause a lot of damage. If the animals have access to riparian areas, they will destroy them by turning them into turd-filled mud holes. They can also denude the landscape, and will even eat brush and low-hanging tree branches to try and avoid starvation. This can be especially bad if the rancher is allowed to implement a junk-science-based holistic resource management (HRM) grazing system. Desert grazing can also permanently damage fragile topsoil, leading to killer dust storms. In Arizona’s Sonoran Desert, cattle facilitate the spread of exotic grass species like buffelgrass (Pennisetum ciliare) and red brome (Bromus rubens) which create damaging wildfires in an ecosystem that’s not adapted to fire, thus threatening the survival of native desert plant species, including the iconic saguaro cactus.
As you may suspect, the multiple use doctrine under which our public lands are managed requires these federal agencies to determine the suitability of various land uses, including grazing, and only allow those uses that are in the interests of the general public. But because of political pressure from ranchers, these regulations have been traditionally ignored when it comes to livestock grazing.
A good example is the story of cattle grazing on the Arizona BLM’s Sonoran Desert National Monument. In 2001 President Bill Clinton issued a proclamation under the Antiquities Act to to create the monument on about 487,000 acres of existing BLM land. It specified that existing grazing permits on land within the monument south of Interstate 8 would not be renewed when they expired. As for the monument land north of the freeway, it said that grazing “shall be allowed to continue only to the extent that the Bureau of Land Management determines that grazing is compatible with the paramount purpose of protecting the objects identified in this proclamation.”
The BLM initially gathered a lot of scientific research that justified ending grazing on the northern portion of the monument. But then the agency, which was under the direction of George W. Bush’s notorious Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton, disregarded it. The Western Watersheds Project had to file a federal lawsuit against the agency in 2008 just to get them to agree to complete the resource management plan (RMP) wherein the appropriateness of permitting grazing on the northern portion of the monument would be determined. In 2010 the BLM settled the case by agreeing to complete the RMP no later than the end of 2011. But when the final RMP was issued in 2012, it still permitted grazing on the desert land north of the freeway. Western Watersheds Project, along with the Grand Canyon (Arizona) Chapter of the Sierra Club, responded by filing another lawsuit against the BLM in 2013. In early 2015 the court found that the BLM’s RMP was “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with the law.” This meant the BLM had to start over with their plan, but grazing would continue in the meantime.
Another example of the problem is the Tonto National Forest’s continued permitting of cattle on the forest’s numerous grazing allotments and pastures comprised of Sonoran Desert. Conservationists have tried for years, without success, to get local Forest Service land managers to declare these areas to be unsuited for grazing. But while grazing has been eliminated on some of the Tonto’s desert areas, the forest has never categorically declared the desert to be unsuitable for livestock. The forest is currently in the process of revising its management plan, and has promised to address this grazing suitability issue. But it remains to be seen if they’ll keep that promise.
It’s unlikely that the BLM or Forest Service will ever issue regulations declaring desert public lands unsuited for livestock grazing unless conservation groups continue to apply legal pressure. And a Republican-led Congress won’t be any help. But a partial solution may be to pay public lands ranchers to voluntarily relinquish their grazing permits and then persuade the agencies to permanently retire the associated grazing allotments. This common sense approach has already been applied with great success by local conservation groups across the West to protect unique areas from livestock grazing. There are undoubtedly many public lands ranchers with permits for desert grazing allotments that would accept a buyout offer, because ranching in the desert isn’t very profitable.
On November 6, 2017, the Tonto National Forest released its Preliminary Proposed Plan for public comment. It includes a grazing management proposal on page 89 which states:
“Allotments comprised of large percentages of Desert Ecological Response Units (Sonora-Mojave 25 Mixed Salt Desert Scrub, Sonoran Paloverde-Mixed Cactus Desert Scrub, and Sonoran Mid-26 Elevation Desert Scrub) should be closed, in whole or in part, as they become vacant.“
Several years ago I accompanied some U.S. Forest Service staff on a horseback inspection of a livestock grazing allotment located in the arid Superstition Mountains of the Tonto National Forest in central Arizona. As we neared a muddy stock tank perched on a chaparral-covered hill we scared off several mule deer that were taking a drink. The District Ranger turned toward me in his saddle and told me how glad he was that livestock were allowed to graze public lands, because the deer would be scarce if there weren’t any livestock waters.
The theory that the wildlife species native to the West’s arid ecosystems depend upon livestock waters for their survival is a popular one. Many federal land managers are willing to believe it. Their environmental assessments of grazing allotment management plans often warn that eliminating livestock grazing would harm local wildlife populations because the livestock waters wouldn’t be maintained.
Most ranchers also seem to believe it, and they frequently offer it in defense of livestock grazing on public lands. I’ve even had ranchers tell me there was hardly any wildlife in Arizona before ranchers arrived and “improved” the land, which is, of course, ridiculous (Davis 1982).
Statewide, the AGFD maintains more than 725 wildlife waters at an estimated annual expense of about $400,000.
Despite all this, there’s surprisingly little scientific evidence to support this belief – and much that contradicts it. Even long-time proponents of livestock waters question their effectiveness (Brown 1997; Krausman 1997). For instance, a review of the AGFD bighorn sheep water development program (Broyles 1995) conducted in the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge concluded, “It has not been shown that these developments are necessary, beneficial, or without harmful side effects.”
Another study conducted in southern New Mexico (Burkett and Thompson 1994) compared wildlife populations at 20 sites that had man-made waters with the same number of similar sites lacking permanent surface water. They found that, “definitive effects of artificial water sources on native wildlife species were not detectable.”
And another study conducted in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert (Krausman and Etchberger 1995) looked at desert mule deer and bighorn sheep populations in the area of the Central Arizona Project canal before and after its construction. They found that, “additional water was not important to the deer or sheep populations.” And a more recent study of mule deer distribution in arid environments (Marshall 2006) found that forage quality was the most important habitat component, and additional livestock waters had little effect.
There are also studies suggesting livestock waters may have negative effects upon native wildlife. For example, they may provide habitat for invasive fish, bullfrogs, and crayfish that can get washed into streams during floods (Sponholtz 1997), and non-native species are the primary factor in the decline of native fish and amphibian species in the West (Simms 1997).
Building new livestock waters in upland areas is often justified by claiming they will lure cattle away from ecologically important riparian bottomlands. But cattle are bred to be lazy critters and are unlikely to climb a sunny hill in the heat to get a drink when the they can stay in the shade of a tree along a stream. Research has shown (Carter 2017) that upland water sources in the arid West don’t attract enough cattle out of riparian areas to allow these important habitats to achieve full ecological health.
The construction of new livestock waters is also used to improve livestock distribution on the uplands. The idea is to spread out the livestock more evenly to reduce overgrazing in areas where the animals like to congregate. It can help overused areas recover from overgrazing, but it can also bring the negative ecological impacts of grazing to new areas that were historically too dry for livestock use (McAuliffe 1997).
Still, the idea that more water means more wildlife sounds intuitively good. It’s an easy concept for hunters and hikers to believe because they know one of the best places to spot wildlife is around water holes. But just because animals congregate around water holes doesn’t mean they’re relying on that water source for their survival. For example, how often have you stopped to take a drink from a water fountain just because it was convenient?
But what about all of those biologists warning us the majority of the West’s wildlife depend, in some way, upon riparian areas for their survival? Livestock waters rarely support significant amounts of riparian habitat. Many of them are so trampled by cattle they are considered ecological sacrifice zones.
Numerous studies have shown it’s the amount and quality of suitable habitat that has the most influence upon wildlife populations. For instance, AGFD research showed that Gambel’s quail (Callipepla gambelli) don’t need surface water, and the quantity and quality of forage was the most important limiting factor on quail populations (Gallizioli 1961). In other words, water is just one component of wildlife habitat, and most Western U.S. wildlife species are adapted to its scarcity.
Of course, there are always exceptions. Elk, for instance, behave much like cattle and livestock waters constructed by ranchers have helped them inhabit hotter and drier areas where they were historically scarce or nonexistent. It’s ironic, because ranchers often complain that local elk populations need to be reduced because they’re competing directly with their cattle for available forage.
The bottom line is the ecological effects of building livestock waters should be objectively considered. Sufficient vegetation to provide quality cover and forage appears to be more important than surface water for most arid land wildlife species. New livestock waters are very expensive and on public lands they are typically built with public funds. In most situations, it would be cheaper for the taxpayers if federal land managers would simply cut permitted livestock numbers to achieve natural resource goals.
Brown, D.E. 1997. Water for Wildlife: Belief Before Science. Symposium on Environmental, Economic, and Legal Issues Related to Rangeland Water Developments, November 13-15. Arizona State University College of Law, Tempe, AZ.
Broyles, B. 1997. Reckoning Real Costs and Secondary Benefits of Artificial Game Waters in Southwestern Arizona. Symposium on Environmental, Economic, and Legal Issues Related to Rangeland Water Developments, November 13-15. Arizona State University College of Law, Tempe, AZ.
Burkett, D.W., and B.C. Thompson. 1994. Wildlife Association with Human-Altered Water Sources in Semiarid Vegetation Communities. Conservation Biology 8(3):682-690.
Davis, G. P. 1982. Man and Wildlife in Arizona. Arizona Game and Fish Department, Phoenix, AZ.
Gallizioli, S. 1961. Water and Gambel quail. Arizona Game and Fish Department Bulletin. Phoenix, AZ.
Krausman, P. R., and R.C. Etchberger. 1995. Responses of Desert Ungulates to a Water Project in Arizona. Journal of Wildlife Management 59(2):292-300.
Krausman, P.R., and B. Czech. 1997. Water Developments and Desert Ungulates. Symposium on Environmental, Economic, and Legal Issues Related to Rangeland Water Developments, November 13-15. Arizona State University College of Law, Tempe, AZ.
Marshal, J.P., V. C. Bleich, P. R. Krausman, M. L. Reed, and N. G. Andrew. 2006. Factors Affecting Habitat Use and Distribution of Desert Mule Deer in an Arid Environment. Wildlife Society Bulletin 34(3):609-619.
McAuliffe, J.R. 1997. Rangeland Water Developments: Conservation Solution or Illusion? Symposium on Environmental, Economic, and Legal Issues Related to Rangeland Water Developments, November 13-15. Arizona State University College of Law, Tempe, AZ.
Simms, J. 1997. Some Effects of Stock Tanks on Aquatic Biodiversity in Arizona Streams. Symposium on Environmental, Economic, and Legal Issues Related to Rangeland Water Developments, November 13-15. Arizona State University College of Law, Tempe, AZ.
Sponholtz, P.J., D.C. Redondo, B.P. Deason, L.M. Sychowski, and J.N. Rinne. 1997. The Influence of Stock Tanks on Native Fishes: Upper Verde River, Arizona. Symposium on Environmental, Economic, and Legal Issues Related to Rangeland Water Developments, November 13-15. Arizona State University College of Law, Tempe, AZ.