DC pushes BLM grazing policy with little prep, time

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The Bureau of Land Management's Washington, D.C., office launched a yearlong pilot project for rancher-oriented grazing policies on federal public lands, but gave local permit holders little more than a month to develop proposals.

And only a handful of the more flexible grazing permits will be offered nationwide through a competitive process. 

The federal announcement of "outcome-based grazing authorizations," or permits, was released to the press Friday (Sept. 22) and introduces a new initiative to give BLM grazing permittees "an unprecedented level of flexibility in the management of livestock."

The project is in line with the "Trump Administration's goal of promoting shared conservation stewardship of public lands while supporting uses such as grazing," the release read.

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke is quoted as saying farmers and ranchers know the land and wildlife "better than anyone."

But it's unclear how prepared local land managers were for last week's call for involved proposals from BLM grazing permittees.

Brian Lombard, a public affairs specialist for the BLM, told The Taos News via email Wednesday (Sept. 27) local managers were given "a packet of information" and a "series of webinars" about the program, which was developed by the agency's Division of Rangeland Resources during fiscal year 2017.

But in an interview with The Taos News, local and regional BLM officials - including Sarah Schlanger, the manager of the Taos Field Office, and public affairs specialist Zachary Stone - offered no comment on whether or not the local office was advised of the initiative ahead of the press release sent to news media.

The initiative was discussed at a meeting of the National Cattleman's Beef Association sometime prior to Friday, Lombard said.

The two-page announcement came with little time for permit holders to come up with workable plans by the Oct. 27 deadline. (The deadline was extended from Oct. 13, the date outlined in the initial press release last Friday.)

"We're looking at it to see what it means," Caren Cowan, executive director of the New Mexico Cattlegrowers' Association, said of the announcement.

Cowan told The Taos News Tuesday (Sept. 26) her organization is currently finding ways for some of its members to submit proposals to the BLM's state office by the deadline.

But even with a short deadline, there could be competition. The BLM will only grant between six and 12 outcome-based grazing permits across the country in this first year. Feedback from this year's participants will determine if the program should be extended and by how much.

Across the agency, the BLM manages nearly 18,000 permits and more than 21,000 allotments on public lands. The Taos Field Office, which includes much of the eastern portion of New Mexico, manages 218 permittees, 30 of which are located within the Río Grande del Norte National Monument.

Authorizations spell out certain perimeters for a grazing operation, like how many cattle can be run on specific tracts of land.

Nathan Combs, a rangeland specialist for the BLM's New Mexico office, said that like many northern states, Taos has more seasonal BLM grazing (permit holders "flip flop between the BLM and Forest Service" throughout the year), whereas Southern New Mexico has more yearlong permits.

Permit holders already have some degree of flexibility. They have a two-week variance for the dates to move their cattle on and off allotments, and many authorizations don't dictate that animals move between pastures on a set schedule, such as in the national forest around Taos, Combs said.

Furthermore, permit holders don't have to run all the cattle they're permitted to put on a grazing allotment. Grazers with the Taos Field Office keep just more than half of the animals they're allowed.

Still, the outcome-based authorizations policy would "give permittees flexibility to make management decisions that don't necessarily conform to a traditional grazing permit," according to Combs.

And it seems some local ranchers who run cattle on BLM tracts would take the federal government up on the offer of fewer restrictions, even on small plots.

"We're trying to improve the land, but the regulations are so intense we can't do anything to it," said David Montoya, ranch manager at Wolf Springs Ranch west of the Río Grande Gorge on U.S. 64.

The ranch privately holds nearly 4,000 acres of land, but also has an unused section (640 acres) of BLM land it currently doesn't keep stocked with cattle during the brief window allowed in the summer.

Montoya said mitigating wind and water erosion are the main issues the ranch would like to improve on its BLM track if it had the leeway.

To be selected for the countrywide outcome-based demonstration, Combs said, permit holders have to be in good standing and show a cooperation to work with federal agencies, as well as have a large enough tract to warrant a relief from usual guidelines developed during planning stages at local offices.

The pilot program is likely more suited for areas that have competing management goals, such as areas in the Great Basin, where sage grouse conservation is paramount, Combs explained.

The policy is meant to emphasize "conservation performance" and "ecological outcomes" while allowing livestock operators to respond to "changing condition such as drought or wildland fire," the press release read. A regional BLM spokesperson did not clarify if this language referred to the known and unknown impacts of climate change on rangeland in the West.

When permit holders submit their plans to the state office of the BLM, staffers will review its details to make sure it's compliant with the National Environmental Policy Act, a lengthy and involved federal review.

But at least one local environmental organization that's had time to review the policy has doubts about its success in the face of deep cuts proposed in the federal budget.

"While Amigos Bravos acknowledges and respects traditional usage of public lands in New Mexico, it has been our experience that underfunded federal agencies such as the Forest Service and BLM do not have the staff or resources to adequately promote existing policy with respect to grazing permittees and other users, let alone to launch new programs," said Joseph Zupan, executive director of Taos-based Amigos Bravos.

Schlanger told The Taos News that with three employees dedicated to monitoring ecological health on the range and compliance with grazing authorizations, the Taos Field Office is fully staffed for overseeing grazing operations

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