Federal land managers have made little progress in recovering damaged rangelands across the West or clearing the many backlogged acres that have never been studied for ecological health, according to new figures from the Bureau of Land Management.
The new data show the BLM assessed an average of 3.5 million acres per year between 2013 and 2015. At that rate, it would take about 17 years before the agency could finish grading all of its rangeland. It started the process in 1998.
Tens of millions of acres do not meet requirements for ecological health because of overgrazing or other factors. Roughly a third of all acres have never been evaluated.
The BLM issues permits for livestock grazing on more than 155 million acres in Western states, more than any other agency. That includes 25 million in Oregon, Washington and Idaho.
The agency’s environmental regulations have drawn much criticism over the years. Some ranchers say they are overly burdensome and threaten livelihoods, while some conservation groups say the BLM is too beholden to the livestock industry.
In February, an EarthFix examination found that, despite having robust environmental protections for federally owned rangelands, the agency has failed to implement them across millions of acres, to the detriment of the region’s wildlife and water — as well as ranchers’ profitability.
Ecologists say improving rangelands provides myriad benefits: Healthy streams and vegetation can support more livestock and store more water in what are often drought-stricken communities in the West.
The latest BLM figures were released in response to a complaint from the environmental group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which has been critical of the federal agency’s grazing policies for decades.
“If you really look at the data, the picture is not that positive,” said Kirsten Stade, advocacy director for PEER. “You still have a lot of rangelands not meeting the standards and it’s not getting much better over time.”
The Bureau of Land Management declined to answer questions about the latest numbers.
The federal agency stopped releasing the cumulative statistics on grazing allotments in 2013, saying the small sample of acres used to make the evaluations could make the numbers misleading.
The agency has said previously it is working to implement improved methods for evaluating rangeland health.