Western Watersheds Project and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) each recently released analyses regarding the Bureau of Land Management’s environmental oversight of its livestock grazing program on 155 million acres of western public lands.

We compiled the agency’s own data on permit and lease renewals and their compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires a public process, a land health evaluation and an environmental analysis for every 10-year authorization. 

Spoiler alert: the agency is actively ducking its supervisory responsibilities on the livestock grazing leases where environmental conflicts are most severe.

This lack of oversight and abdication of legal responsibility allows livestock grazing to imperil wildlife, trample cultural sites, spread invasive species, ruin water quality and degrade recreational experiences without so much as ‘hard look’ at whether those impacts should be allowed to occur or could be mitigated by changes in management.

By rubber-stamping permit renewals under their original terms, the Bureau has been kicking the can down the road on the majority of public lands where livestock are permitted. 

Western Watersheds Project’s work uncovered a downward trend of NEPA compliance. About 28 percent of grazing allotments – the designated geographic area for which grazing permits and leases are authorized – were renewed without analysis in 2013, when rolling over 10-year grazing permits under their previous terms became codified in the Federal Lands Policy and Management Act as an alternative to conducting a full environmental review.

By 2017, that number jumped to 38 percent of all allotments operating without the requisite environmental analysis. By 2021, over half of all allotments on public lands (and 2/3 of all the livestock use in the West) were authorized without any public participation in the decision-making process and nary a range of alternatives to the status quo livestock operations to be found. 

It would be one thing if the Bureau were actually ensuring that the health of the landscape was being met before renewing grazing permits, but PEER’s review shows that isn’t happening either. Their analysis of the Bureau’s rangeland health data demonstrates that nearly 30 percent of the allotments have never been evaluated for compliance with land health standards, and of those that have been assessed, over fifty percent failed to meet the agency’s own low bar for ecological health. 

It’s a real scandal that the lands where oversight of livestock grazing is most necessary – sensitive wildlife habitats, lands designated for elevated conservation protections such as national monuments and Areas of Critical Environmental Concern, and lands failing the agency’s own land health standards due to inappropriate livestock grazing – are preferentially being fast-tracked for automatic permit reauthorization under existing terms.

Allotments in priority greater sage grouse habitats and designated Critical Habitat for the threatened Gunnison sage grouse are being renewed without review at higher-than-average frequencies. This blank check for continued livestock use prevents the agency from correcting problematic grazing management, and also blocks new conservation measures or innovative solutions from being applied.

Many of us working on reforming public lands livestock grazing have been warning for years that the public’s collective interest in healthy public lands is being harmed by a laissez-faire attitude of industry-captured land management agencies. The public’s ability to effect change on these lands is limited by the lack of public participation opportunities that are supposed to accompany permit and lease renewals.

Worse still, the agency’s ability to implement its own land use plans – including the vaunted sage grouse plan amendments – is blocked until the site-specific process is completed. The Bureau has been counting on its management plans to provide “adequate regulatory mechanisms” to preclude Endangered Species Act listings, but the automatic grazing permit renewals – locking in old management schemes and preventing new protections from being applied – are an indefinite hall pass for the livestock industry. 

If the Biden administration wants to reach its goals for “America the Beautiful” and ensure that 30 percent of U.S. lands are protected by 2030, it’s going to have to rein in the abuse of public lands. Without knowing the condition of the lands or seeking to improve its management through site-specific analysis, the administration can’t possibly count these acres as protected. Hopefully some of the new hires at the Bureau will be added to the grazing program.  

In a time of unprecedented drought, climate disruption, declining biodiversity, and a growing public interest in outdoor recreation and cultural sites, the agency should take an “all hands-on deck” approach to getting the impacts of private livestock grazing evaluated on federally-managed lands. It’s a 155-million-acre question, and the American public is ready for some answers. 

Greta Anderson is the deputy director of Western Watersheds Project, an environmental conservation group dedicated to protecting and restoring watersheds and wildlife throughout the West.