The stretch of public land where Angie Ketscher grazes her cattle is so expansive she’s never seen the whole of it.
Neither has its owner, the Bureau of Land Management.
Ketscher’s ranch is one of four that turn their cattle out to feed on this nearly 300,000 acre parcel of the sagebrush sea.
Standing on a ridge above her ranch, Ketscher pointed across a narrow, treeless valley. Her permit begins on the other side and runs to three separate mountains in the far distance. By horseback, it would take three days to cover that distance.
Ketscher’s share of BLM land sits just west of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, separated by little more than a dirt road from the site where armed militants staged a 41-day protest of federal land ownership and urged ranchers to tear up their federal grazing contracts.
The slate of environmental policies that accompany those contracts has frustrated many ranchers, who see such regulation as a threat to their livelihoods.
But those same policies have been loosely implemented – to the detriment of the landscape, its wildlife and, in many cases, ranchers themselves.
An EarthFix analysis found some of the agency’s strongest environmental policies are either absent or outdated on tens of millions of acres.
- About a third of BLM areas used for grazing had not been assessed for rangeland health, leaving regulators with little sense of how much the land is damaged, what’s causing it and what could fix it. Many of the areas that actually were assessed failed to achieve federal standards.
- Most acres used for grazing lack current management plans that detail long-term goals, even on land the BLM says needs to improve.
- Increasingly, permits are renewed as-is for up to 10 years before the agency completes time-consuming environmental reviews, using a provision meant to keep ranchers in business while the agency struggles to clear a significant backlog. One in three permits is now issued this way. It can happen on land the agency considers high priority and on land BLM staff think livestock have damaged.
The backlog is not from lack of effort. Current and former BLM staff, ranchers and ecologists describe a system underfunded and overburdened with bureaucracy.
“A lot of times our folks haven’t been out to certain parts of these allotments to see what the situation is in many years, and that can be troublesome,” said Sandy Wyman, a BLM range management specialist in Prineville, Oregon. “And we don’t have the manpower to look at everything all at the same time.”
The Joy (And Responsibility) Of Ranching
Ketscher and her husband moved to their Harney County ranch 22 years ago. His family has ranched since the 1950s.
A Willamette Valley native, she cringed when she saw the land for the first time. It was miles of nothingness.
“It really did make me go ‘huh?’” she said.
Something about it stuck: the cold, the early mornings, the lines of hungry jet-black cattle.
Her children grew up helping with the ranch, feeding cattle daily from the back of a tractor, keeping them healthy and helping run them from one pasture to the next. One son plans to stay. He works as a ranch hand with the family operation. She couldn’t imagine a better life for her kids.
“I would never want to be anywhere else than I am right now,” she said. “The joy that you get when you get to watch a cow have a calf is indescribable.”
In the years after the Civil War, ranching came to define the American West. Homestead acts encouraged Western settlement. And public lands offered the opportunity to expand grazing operations on the cheap.
It was the earliest years of widespread and lawless grazing that did much of the lasting damage to the West’s range. The present-day Bureau of Land Management arose out of an effort to establish order and prevent ranching conflicts and overgrazing.
The agency now permits grazing on more acres than any other: 155 million in total, including 25 million in Oregon, Washington and Idaho.
The agency is now responsible for making sure the land remains in good health not just for livestock, but for the environment, recreation and other uses.
Ecologist David Pyke studies rangeland health for the U.S. Geological Survey in Oregon. He said unhealthy rangeland can mean trampled or overgrazed stream banks, bare, eroded soil and landscapes overtaken by invasive plants like cheatgrass.
Damaged rangelands can mean habitat loss for many species, but they can also worsen the effects of drought and hinder ranchers’ profitability. If too much of the vegetation along a stream is eaten, its roots will weaken, eroding the stream banks and holding less water. Lands grazed too heavily with no relief cannot support the same amount of livestock as healthy range.
Where rangeland health is impaired, data show livestock are still the most frequent cause.
Pyke said restrictions on ranchers would likely be much greater if the BLM staff fully enforced the agency’s environmental policies.
“If they wanted to get down into the nitty-gritty of analyzing with some of these allotments and really tried to get recovery to occur on some of them, they could be much more difficult with the livestock operators,” Pyke said of the BLM. “But I think they are understaffed, and it’s very difficult for them to get all the information that they should have.”
‘The Good, The Bad And The Ugly’
If the Ketschers graze their cattle too long or in areas they are not allowed, odds are no one else will ever know.
They visit with someone from the BLM Burns district office twice a year to discuss their grazing plan, but that office oversees millions of acres. Compliance checks are few and far between.
In Oregon and Washington, BLM field staff complete inspections each year for about 30 percent of the land they oversee. Formal enforcement action for noncompliance is even more rare. The agency says it makes informal visits to ranchers more frequently than its numbers indicate.
The Ketschers follow their permit’s rules regardless, “because in the end, we’re the ones that are going to suffer,” she said.
If they misuse the ground, the resulting lack of vegetation or water could cost them.
“We do the very best we can to preserve every acre of ground,” she said.
Ecologists who know the Ketscher ranch speak highly of it, calling the family good stewards of the land who are willing to listen and learn.
Such is not always the case.
Wayne Elmore, who retired from the BLM in 2003 and now does contract work, has worked for more than 40 years in range management based in Prineville, Oregon.
Across the state he has seen, as he calls it, the good, the bad and the ugly.
He met ranchers who knew more about ecology than college professors. He also met some who let their cattle overgraze public lands their whole lives and they never knew the difference.
“They immediately think because you bought and lived in a rural area and you had cows or horses, that that automatically makes you a philosopher and a reader of the land,” Elmore said.
Elmore said the lands where he helped establish better environmental protections ultimately made ranchers more profitable, because healthier streams and vegetation patches can support more livestock.
The BLM’s rangeland health assessments were meant to identify areas where streams are trampled, the soil has too little vegetation to prevent erosion and endangered species have suitable habitat.
Those assessments are done infrequently. Since 1999, when the program was created, about one third of grazing tracts have never been assessed. Most of the other two-thirds were done in the early and mid 2000s and have not been reevaluated since.
The BLM says it is focusing on “high-priority” grazing areas, meaning those with habitat for sage grouse or land that was previously categorized as needing improvement. That means some areas could be assessed twice while others are ignored.
BLM spokesman Jeff Krauss said where rangeland health assessments do not exist, the agency relies on any other available information about the land when deciding how to limit grazing.
Allowing Grazing On Damaged Land
Ecologists say the agency’s assessments are too subjective, inconsistent and make assumptions about broad tracts of land based on small samples.
Peter Lattin is a landscape ecologist from Philomath, Oregon, and a former BLM contractor. He left his work for the agency and became a whistleblower five years ago over the BLM’s decision not to consider the damage done by grazing in broad regional assessments he was hired to work on.
In the years since, Lattin has since spent many hours pouring over agency data and aerial photography of public grazing land across the West. What he has seen in the data and in the images did not align.
“In many cases, allotments the agency identified as meeting all standards would clearly and unambiguously fail to meet standards,” Lattin said. “A quick examination of aerial imagery shows the allotments to be just trashed.”
The BLM does not dispute that some grazing lands listed as meeting standards could contain acres that do not – and vice versa.
Angie Ketscher’s grazing territory, for instance, failed its last rangeland health assessment. But she says her cattle don’t actually graze on the acres dinged in the evaluation.
The assessment, done in 2002, flagged an intermittent stream known as Buzzard Creek. BLM staff compared parts of the creek that were fenced off from cattle and those that weren’t. They found improvements in vegetation in fenced areas. In the unfenced areas, they found impaired soil and vegetation they attributed to heavy grazing.
Despite the finding, since 2002 all four permits on that land have been renewed as-is without being fully processed, meaning the BLM issued permits before making sure ranchers’ grazing practices complied with laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act or the Endangered Species Act.
A Plan Backfires
After an act of Congress, which the national beef industry praised, the ability to sidestep environmental reviews before renewing a grazing permit is now a permanent part of grazing law.
The practice first began in the early 2000s, when the agency’s workload required for issuing permits ballooned. A decade prior, a series of Government Accountability Office reports put the agency’s monitoring and enforcement under fire. By 1999 the BLM had adopted its system for rangeland health assessments, among other policies.
When permits began expiring faster than federal land managers could process them, ranchers complained and lawmakers stepped in. A temporary rider, which kept getting renewed, allowed federal land managers to renew grazing permits under the same terms and conditions for up to 10 years and conduct environmental assessments as time allowed.
It riled environmental groups. The Western Watersheds Project, an environmental group opposing livestock grazing on public lands, challenged it and won, arguing the permits still had to comply with environmental provisions in the Federal Land Management and Policy Act.
The plan backfired.
In response to the ruling, Congress voted in 2014 to amend the Federal Land Management Policy Act and make the provision permanent. The change was included as a small part of that year’s national defense spending bill.
That 2014 vote also gave federal land managers the ability to grant grazing permits “categorical exclusions,” meaning that rather than delay an environmental impact statement, they can avoid it entirely on certain permits.
“The political power, or the perceived political power, of the livestock industry is extreme in the Western states, ” said John Ratner, director of the Wyoming, Utah and Colorado region for the Western Watersheds Project.
Ratner’s organization sues regularly to challenge BLM policies and specific permit decisions throughout the West. In some cases, such challenges are the reason grazing permits are so slow to process.
BLM spokesman Jeff Krauss said his agency prefers not to defer environmental assessments and wants to give permits a full review before they are issued, but he said it has to use limited time and money on high-priority areas like sage grouse habitat.
“By addressing grazing in high-priority areas, the agency’s intent is to first address grazing management where land health standards are not achieved,” Krauss said.
Enlisting Ranchers In Rangeland Health Care
The Ketscher ranch now does some monitoring of its own.
With a digital camera and GPS tracker, Angie Ketscher will visit the same spots year to year and keep track of grass height. She will find a landmark like a rock to use as a starting point, lay a string or tape measure down, and take pictures every foot or so.
Then she’ll log the pictures with the date and coordinates, so she can compare them over time.
She’s part of an effort spearheaded by Dustin Johnson, a professor with Oregon State University’s extension office in nearby Burns.
A former range manager for BLM, Johnson knows first hand the importance of monitoring and how difficult this is for an agency with a staggering workload. He hopes the program can kill two birds with one stone: improve monitoring and engage ranchers in rangeland health efforts.
“That serves as the foundation upon which those decisions get made,” Johnson said. “Hard to manage unless you’re measuring it.”
The data Ketscher has collected haven’t yet been used in any BLM decisions.
“I don’t think the BLM would be opposed to that,” Ketscher said. “I think it’s going to take a little bit of work to get there.”
Meanwhile, the bureau recently abandoned its old method of accounting for rangeland health. It no longer grades large tracts of land based on smaller samples. It now limits assessment grades to the actual acres evaluated, hoping that will lead to better, more defensible decisions about where livestock can graze and how intensely. Doing so, however, means far fewer acres each year get a rangeland health grade.
Last year, the public land Ketscher’s cattle graze got its first new grade for rangeland health in 13 years. It’s now passing.
But the new grade has less to do with healthier vegetation and more to do with a change in standards.
In 2015, the BLM decided Buzzard Creek’s flow was too intermittent to support year-round vegetation in the first place, spokesman Michael Campbell said.
Thirteen years after declaring livestock had impaired 300,000 acres because one creek’s vegetation was too damaged, then failing to fully act on the finding, the agency decided that creek’s vegetation was not significant enough to count.