Opinions range on grazing plan - Critics, backers spar over effect on land

Tribune Washington Bureau


WASHINGTON -- While many in Montana say a Bush administration proposal to change livestock grazing rules on public lands in the West gives ranchers a chance to improve the land, critics say the new rules will make it harder to protect drought-stricken land from overgrazing.

Sportsmen, environmentalists and retired federal employees say the proposed changes would roll back some of the protections adopted in 1995 by former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt.

But Bureau of Land Management spokesman Tom Gorey said the agency is moving forward, not rolling back. "We look at the ranchers as stewards of the land, and we view a positive working relationship (with them) as the way to go," Gorey said. The proposed changes are "going to improve stewardship of the range, and better range is not only good for the rancher, it's good for all users of public lands."

The Bureau of Land Management is accepting public comment on the proposed changes through Tuesday. The agency plans to make the changes final in October and start using them in December.

The agency allows grazing on nearly 160 million acres of public lands in the West, including 8.2 million acres in Montana.

Those in Montana's ranching community say the changes mean ranchers have more flexibility and will be motivated to make more improvements.

One of the proposed changes allows ranchers to share titles to permanent range improvements with the BLM. Currently immovable range improvements, such as fences and wells, that are paid for by ranchers belong to the BLM, although the ranchers are entitled to compensation if they lose or give up their grazing permits.

Sharing the title to permanent range improvements between BLM and the permit holder is good news to Montana stockgrowers, said Vicki Olson, chairwoman of the Montana Public Lands Council. By sharing the title, there is more of an incentive to make changes that can improve the environmental health of the range, she said. "This way the rancher is contributing, and he gets some benefits in the end," Olson said.

"It makes for a better management tool." Sonny Obrecht, president of the Montana Grazing Association and a rancher near Turner, said the changes aren't a problem. He said operations, and the current working relationship with the BLM will continue.

Olson also said ranchers are already working to protect the range. "Most stockmen are very good stewards," she said. "We want to keep the range in good shape so we can pass it on."

Critics of the changes are especially unhappy with two proposed changes to grazing regulations.

The first change would require BLM employees to monitor grazing allotments for an unspecified period of time before they could determine that a rancher's grazing practices are harming the public range.

Currently, BLM employees can determine in a single visit that grazing is harming the land and prescribe changes.

The second change would give ranchers as long as seven years to fully adopt required changes in their grazing practices.

Ranchers now get one year to make changes, which could include things like fencing cattle away from streams or reducing the grazing season.

"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to determine a pasture is overgrazed," said retired Idaho BLM employee Al Logosz, who now monitors rangelands for the Ada County Fish and Game League and the Idaho Bird Hunters Club.Most of the West has been in a drought for the past few years and many grazing allotments in southwest Idaho are in terrible shape thanks to the drought and overgrazing, he said. "We see this as a way to prevent BLM from making important decisions," Logosz said.

Olson said the phase-in period is welcome. "Most ranchers are good about making those improvements," she said. "And there are ranchers out there who are trying to make changes, but the weather doesn't cooperate. That's not the ranchers' fault."

Ranchers and their cattle share the federal rangelands with wildlife, hunters, anglers, hikers and off-road vehicle users. Areas that are stripped of their natural vegetation by overgrazing can be taken over by fast-growing exotic weeds, like cheat grass, which have little nutritional value for livestock or wildlife.

Denuded and trampled stream banks erode more easily and don't support the plants that shade fish and cool the water. BLM officials say they still would be able to immediately suspend grazing in emergency situations -- such as after fires or floods -- under the proposed new rules.

"Yes, (the change) is being characterized as a delay, but I would characterize it as an appropriate time frame to allow for careful, reasoned choices," said Ken Visser, a BLM range management specialist.

Ranchers want more monitoring and a phase-in period to shield them from agency employees who have poor relationships with the permit holders and who make decisions that aren't scientifically based, said Jay Bodner, spokesman for the Montana Stockgrowers Association "This phase-in period will not only allow a producer to adjust, it will allow for decisions to be reviewed in more length of time," Bodner said.

In the meantime, standards and guidelines that protect the range still would be in effect, he said. "The resources won't get hurt during this phase in period," Bodner said. The monitoring change means sound science will be used when deciding if grazing management practices are a factor in the decline of rangeland health, he said. "We need scientific data to make sound decisions," he said.

"By making those kinds of assessments you take the guess work out of any decision that is made." Logosz said the BLM doesn't have the money or the manpower to do the monitoring it needs to do now let alone keep up with the additional burden.

If there are concerns that the monitoring will be an increased burden, the BLM should hire more range technicians or find more money to complete thorough monitoring, Bodner said.

According to Dick Mayberry, BLM range management specialist, the agency has 480 range conservationists looking out for nearly 160 million acres of public rangelands.

Ten years ago, it had 590 range conservationists. President Bush is proposing to increase the BLM's $15 million range monitoring budget by $2 million next year.

Mayberry couldn't say how many additional employees would be hired if Congress approves the increase. Other proposed changes include: l Allowing water rights developed by ranchers on public lands to be held in the ranchers' name.

Currently, all water rights are in the BLM's name whenever state law allows it. l No loss of federal grazing privileges if ranchers commit a "prohibited act" off their federal allotment. Prohibited acts include polluting water sources, using poisonous bait, illegally removing or destroying archeological objects, killing a bald eagle or an endangered species. Currently, ranchers can lose their grazing privileges if they commit these acts on private or state lands.

Faith Bremner is a reporter for Gannett News Service.


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