Why is Livestock Grazing Permitted on Desert Public Lands?

sonoran desert national monument, arizona
Sonoran Desert National Monument, AZ (Jeff Burgess)

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.

Update

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.

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