— Originally published by Environment and Energy Daily. Contact E&E publishing for permission to republish. — Ed
Armed standoffs over federal lands in Nevada and Oregon have impeded the government’s ability to enforce grazing laws that protect sensitive soils and stream banks, said a new report from the Government Accountability Office, which also faulted lax oversight.
GAO found that the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service have kept poor records of incidents of unauthorized grazing on the 450 million acres they manage in the West and are therefore unable to track potential patterns in violations. As a result, the frequency and extent of unauthorized grazing on federal lands are “largely unknown,” GAO found.
BLM and USFS resolve most incidents of unauthorized grazing informally, such as through a phone call or a visit with a rancher, and do not record them in a database, GAO said.
Most unauthorized grazing happens by accident — such as when livestock stray through an unlatched gate onto lands where they are not permitted to graze, according to data obtained by GAO.
But while there are only a “small number of confrontational ranchers” who refuse to acknowledge the authority of BLM and USFS and who engage in “willful unauthorized grazing,” agency staff and conservationists are “concerned that the problem will grow,” the GAO report said.
High-profile, armed conflicts over federal grazing restrictions — including Cliven Bundy’s standoff with BLM in southern Nevada in April 2014 and his son Ammon Bundy’s takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge earlier this year — have impeded the agencies’ ability to manage the range, GAO said.
For example, the Forest Service was prepared to suspend a rancher’s permit in Oregon for repeated unauthorized grazing violations but decided not to because of the Malheur takeover, GAO said.
Similarly, Nevada’s BLM chief told staff not to visit grazing allotments after Cliven Bundy’s 2014 standoff, GAO reported.
The Bunkerville incident followed BLM’s decision to impound Bundy’s cattle, which had been grazing illegally on federal lands for decades and damaging the range.
Cases of intentional unauthorized grazing and related anti-government protests “can affect agency decision making regarding enforcement” of other grazing infractions, GAO said.
In addition, “lack of support from higher-level managers for strong enforcement action does not incentivize field staff to act on unauthorized grazing and, in some cases, lowers staff morale,” the report said.
GAO focused largely on smaller grazing infractions, and BLM and USFS’s ability to keep track of them. From 2010 to 2014, the agencies took formal action — either by billing a penalty for unauthorized grazing or by preparing a law enforcement report — on nearly 1,500 incidents of unauthorized grazing, the report found.
The agencies said they dealt with most incidents informally and did not record them, a process that is not provided for in the agencies’ regulations, GAO said.
“Until the agencies require that all incidents of unauthorized grazing be recorded, including those incidents resolved informally, BLM and the Forest Service will not have a complete record of unauthorized grazing incidents with which to identify any potential pattern of violation,” the report said.
“By amending regulations to establish a procedure for the informal resolution of minor infractions, the agencies could achieve the objective of efficiently resolving such incidents with minimal conflict within its regulatory authority,” it said.
In a June 21 letter to GAO, Interior Department Deputy Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management Jim Lyons said the agency agreed with the watchdog’s recommendation to either amend its regulations for unauthorized grazing to allow for informal resolutions or to follow existing regulations by sending a formal notice for each potential violation. Lyons said BLM will revise its handbook to “better describe procedures for following the existing regulations.”
“As part of this effort, the BLM will clarify the process for documenting and recording incidents of unauthorized grazing, including those resolved informally,” Lyons wrote.
USFS spokeswoman Babete Anderson said her agency was “reviewing the [GAO] report and determining what actions we may need to take.”
“So far in our review, we have not found evidence of widespread and repeated unauthorized grazing that the agency was not addressing in some way,” she said. “We may learn more to alter as we review the report in more detail.”
Both agencies told GAO that informal resolution is the best way to respond to non-willful grazing violations, such as when livestock stray outside their permitted grazing area.
BLM’s current grazing regulations describe three levels of unauthorized grazing — non-willful, willful and repeated willful — with progressively higher penalties for each level, GAO said. They require BLM to send out a written notice for every potential unauthorized grazing incident.
BLM recorded 859 incidents of unauthorized grazing from 2010 to 2014, and the Forest Service recorded 618 incidents. Of the 466 incidents on BLM lands in which ranchers were billed, roughly two-thirds were for “non-willful” violations.
Out of the nearly 53,000 grazing compliance inspections that BLM performed during those years, about 1,500 — or 3 percent — identified possible noncompliance, GAO found.
A majority of the unauthorized grazing is non-willful, involves just a few head of livestock and causes no resource damage, the agencies told GAO.
Yet in some instances, as little as a few weeks of unauthorized grazing can “set back years of progress in restoring riparian areas,” said GAO.
“Stakeholders told us that the loss of native grass through unauthorized overgrazing may allow invasive species such as cheatgrass to grow, creating a potential fire hazard, or may result in a loss of habitat for threatened species such as sage grouse,” the report said.
“During our field visits,” the report said, “we observed locations where unauthorized grazing had resulted in severely damaged natural springs, overgrazed meadows, and trampled streambeds.”
Penalties too low
The report also warned that the Forest Service’s penalties for unauthorized grazing have been too low to deter violations.
The agency charged $2.51 per cow and calf per month of unauthorized grazing or less from 2008 to 2014. The penalty shot up to $10.68 in 2016.
The current charge for authorized grazing on BLM and USFS lands is $2.11 per head per month, which represents a small portion of the costs of operating a livestock business.
“There are permittees who view the [USFS] penalties for unauthorized grazing as a cost of doing business because paying the penalties is cheaper than seeking forage elsewhere,” GAO said.
One USFS employee told GAO that the agency was reluctant to send a bill for penalties for unauthorized grazing “because it shows how low the penalty is and may encourage additional unauthorized grazing,” the report said.
While BLM and USFS collected nearly $450,000 for unauthorized grazing from 2010 to 2014, all but $24,000 of that was collected by BLM.
“By adopting an unauthorized grazing penalty structure that is, like BLM’s, based on the current price of private forage, the Forest Service’s unauthorized grazing penalty can better serve as a deterrent to such grazing,” GAO said.
The report reveals a need for greater enforcement of financial penalties for grazing violations and increased data collection on potential serial violators, said House Natural Resources Committee ranking member Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), who requested the report.
“When offenders are detected, BLM frequently exacts no penalties and, for the more serious violations, seldom assesses the minimum penalties its own regulations require,” Grijalva said in a statement. “As a result, grazing trespass is not adequately deterred, which can lead to degradation of public rangelands, among other things.”
Ethan Lane, executive director of the Public Lands Council, a grazing advocacy organization, noted that the report shows that the “vast majority” of unauthorized grazing happens by accident and is rightfully handled “collaboratively and informally at the local level.”
He said, “The vast majority of these don’t warrant some sort of formal process.”
SUPPORT: If you enjoyed this story produced by Environment & Energy, please consider supporting WyoFile. WyoFile pays a subscription fee to E&E for the right to bring E&E stories to our readers.