Why is Livestock Grazing Permitted on Desert Public Lands?

Did you know that 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 hundreds of thousands of acres of hot Sonoran Desert. On the Tonto National Forest, for example, there are 791,284 acres of Sonoran Desert.

Almost all of these public land 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.”

This conclusion was reinforced when the Nature Conservancy of Arizona released a report in 2005 titled The Impacts of Livestock Grazing in the Sonoran Desert: A Literature Review and Synthesis. The authors suggested that the only livestock grazing that might make sense in the desert is the BLM’s practice of issuing temporary, ephemeral grazing permits after wet winters. “For most of the Sonoran Desert, as described in this report, only grazing in response to winter rains may be feasible,” they said.

Permitting cattle to graze in the desert can cause a lot of damage, especially during the hot summers and droughts. 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 desert uplands of herbaceous plants, which they prefer to eat, so they are forced to eat brush, mesquite tree seedpods, and low-hanging tree branches to try and avoid starvation (Smith 1993). In fact, research (Rosiere 1975) has shown that cattle grazing the Southwest’s deserts don’t get more than 50% of their forage from desert grasses.

But some Arizona ranchers actually prefer desert grazing allotments on public land. They call it brush grazing, versus grass grazing. A rancher explained it to me this way, “When it doesn’t rain the grass will dry up and your’e out of business, but the brush will always be there.”

This type of ranching is so pervasive on the Tonto National Forest that the Forest set a maximum utilization level of 50% of current annual growth on browse species by cattle. But by the time that use level is achieved, the cattle have already eaten almost every every available blade of grass. This results in much less food and cover for desert wildlife.

For example, research (Krausman 1996) has shown that livestock grazing in the desert degrades desert mule deer habitat. Cattle and mule deer usually have little dietary overlap, as cattle prefer herbaceous vegetation and deer prefer woody browse. But the lack of herbaceous plants in the desert forces the cattle to compete with desert mule deer for browse. This competition is increased during the hot summers and droughts, and the competition is made worse when new livestock waters are built which allow cattle to say on the land longer during dry times. The USDA’s Livestock Forage Disaster Program also contributes to this problem by disbursing drought compensation payments to ranchers that use desert lands.

Sonoran Desert, Campaign Grazing Allotment, Tonto National Forest, October 2019.
Sonoran Desert, Campaign Grazing Allotment, Tonto National Forest, October 2019. Jojoba bush in the foreground has been pruned by cattle. (Jeff Burgess)

Desert grazing is  especially bad if the rancher is allowed to implement a junk-science-based holistic resource management (HRM) grazing system, as they have high forage utilization rates – and it might not rain after the cattle denude the land. 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 had come under the direction of Pres. 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. Local conservationists have tried for years, without success, to get local Forest Service land managers to declare these areas to be unsuited for grazing. 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. But a partial solution may be to pay public land 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 land ranchers with permits for desert grazing allotments that would accept a buyout offer, because ranching in the desert is tough work that’s not very profitable.

Update

On November 6, 2017, the Tonto National Forest released its Preliminary Proposed Plan for public comment. It included 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.

On December 13, 2019, the Tonto National Forest released their Draft Land Management Plan and accompanying Draft EIS for public review and comment. The management proposal above, that would have started to curtail desert grazing on the Forest, was deleted from the draft plan, likely in response to political pressure from the Gila County Cattle Growers Association and the Trump administration.

On March 26, 2020, the BLM finally published a Notice of Intent to initiate a 30-day NEPA scoping period to accept public comments in regards to the issue of continuing to permit livestock grazing on the Sonoran Desert National Monument.

On May 8, 2020, the BLM issued a notice of public review for their Draft Resource Management Plan Amendment/Environmental Assessment for the Sonoran Desert National Monument. Deadline for submission of written comments was June 6, 2020.

On July 9, 2020, Pres. Trump’s BLM issued a Proposed Resource Management Plan Amendment/Final Environmental Assessment (RMPA/EA) for the Sonoran Desert National Monument Livestock Grazing Project. It included the continuation of cattle grazing.

On September 29, 2020, Trump’s BLM approved its Resource Management Plan Amendment/Final Environmental Assessment (RMPA/EA) for the Sonoran Desert National Monument Livestock Grazing Project, which included the continuation of cattle grazing.

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1 Comment

  1. Desert cattle live off of mesquite and Palo Verde beans. The beans themselves are sweet and extremely high in protein. When we get heavy rains the ranches get what is known as ephemeral increases which is a temporary increase in the number of cattle they can run. The real reason this is allowed is to help control the brush that can become a fire danger problem in the summer. Aside from that I enjoyed your piece.

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