Self-described patriots gathered around a fire to keep warm, after they occupied the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. A federal review says such conflicts are partly responsible for agencies not knowing the extent of unauthorized grazing. (Brooke Warren/High Country News)

— 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.

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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.

Reforms underway

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.”

A cow grazes near a stream in Wyoming. Western Watersheds Project says public lands grazing raises e coli levels above standards set under the Clean Water Act. (Flickr Creative Commons/Steve Stevens)
A cow grazes near a stream in Wyoming. A GAO report says the government doesn’t properly report about or fine for infractions of public land grazing rules that have been established to protect the environment . (Flickr Creative Commons/Steve Stevens)

“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.

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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.

Cows graze on the north fork of the Powder River in the Bighorn National Forest. Western Watershed Project says the “data trespassing” bill that became law in Wyoming this year may require explicit permission from federal agencies to collect data on a case-by-case basis. (Flickr Creative Commons/Mia & Steve Mestdagh)
Cattle graze on the north fork of the Powder River in the Bighorn National Forest. A federal review says threats of armed confrontations, along with low fines, make government land managers reluctant to enforce grazing standards in some instances. (Flickr Creative Commons/Mia & Steve Mestdagh)

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.”

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Flickr Creative Commons photos from Steve Stevens, and Mia and Steve Mestdagh.

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  1. It seems like many of the people commenting on this article know little about livestock grazing but plenty about how to regurgitate the enviro propaganda against grazing. Most farmers and ranchers I know won’t intentionally harm the land because in the end it harms their livelihood. BTW, I own a 400 acre farm with ~290 of pasture, so I do know what I’m talking about. A productive farm or ranch actually enhances wildlife habitat, not degrades it. Enough environmental organization propaganda.

  2. I have to say it. The scofflaw Cliven Bundy is still walking free and has in fact become the face for the Sagebrush Rebellion v.2.0 in spite of his decades of illegal grazing practices at taxpayer expense. And the BLM let him get away with , chronically so.

    By failing to rope Cliven and corral him and make him answer for his transgressions , the BLM has legitimized the Sagebrush rebels ; emboldened them. ( Ditto the Forest Service)

    Therefore, the administrators of the Departments of Interior and Agriculture and especially their enforcement people are mostly spineless invertebrates. They have granted themselves protection ( read: job security) under the Endangered Species Act and their critical habitat is a cubicle.

    The measures and means of dealing with scofflaws like Bundy and the countless rangeland renegades across the West of like mind are clearly spelled out in the regs. The agencies are mandated to oversee the stewardship of the Public’s lands , to see that are managed fair and well sustainably without damaging the resources . But they are not doing their jobs. Enforcement stops with lip service and in it’s place the 19th century Robber Baron mentality of ranching prevails.

    And we let it happen. Can we make it Un-happen ? Grow a spine ??

  3. This industry also gets away with murder. They killed to keep acres and now want what we want to keep pristine. This industry hurts our bodies, our lands, and our wallets. They should pay for what they do, just as any other business would be made to do. They shouldn’t be allowed to shoot wolves. They should raise a few extra cows just for the purpose of “natural losses”. They should build their darn fences around their acres and keep their cows in that acreage, period. If you only own two acres but raise your cows on others land for next to nothing, let your cows poop and pee in our waters and pass disease on to our wildlife, use poisons in the raising of these animals, you shouldn’t be allowed to be a so called “rancher”. They have too much power over the people, just as the oil industry has too much power. I have quit eating any animal products because of the industries lies and thefts. Many more join everyday. Soon, you will only need an acre or two, Ha. I hope sooner than later.

  4. Interesting, but not unexpected. The elites that govern us are lawless, as numerous recent examples attest. There are perhaps twenty million foreign criminals in this country ignoring any law that gets in their way. It is hardly surprising that rural Americans are following their lead.
    This is how the Rule of Law works: it applies to all, equally, or you must accept that it applies to none

  5. Well, you forgot about the little spotted owls trapped in their nests when you burn these seven million acres of trees every year.

  6. Perhaps if more taxpayers were aware of how much of this “non-willfull, willfull, & repeated willfull trespass actually cost them each year – there would be more questions raised. These ranchers or, more likely, livestock corporations are allowed to get away with this because these agencies are hesitant to penalize or force removal of the cattle – when the specific agencies are supposed to manage & care for our public lands. The damage that the agricultural runoff does to the land & more so the water – simply because no one is stopping them? The problem is NOT small family ranchers. The problem is the livestock industry – much of which is owned by big business corporations. The name of their game is profit & greed – not conservation of wildlife or the environment. The larger name of the game is BIG AGRICULTURE! Self-reporting? Come on, be real – there needs to be accountability & penalties that actually discourage repeat trespass. We “the people” are accountable for anything WE do – why should this industry get away without it?

    1. What we are aware of is how much seven million acres of trees burning in forest fires every year is costing us. A forest fire causes more erosion than anything else. This all started back in the Clinton administration when these Gestapo agencies started an assault on anyone doing anything useful in the western states. I was working in a sawmill in Lincoln County, Montana at the time. Now there are no sawmills in Lincoln County, Montana. The only thing trees on federal land are used for now are these seven million acres of fire every year to prove to city people that there is global warming. Before logging was shut down, the worst year for forest fires was 3.5 million acres in 1910. Now we see twice as much as that go up in smoke every year. Lincoln County, Montana, is now the county in the entire United States with the highest percentage of people receiving Social Security benefits. We understand your idea of land management. Lincoln County, Montana, is about one and a half times the size of the state of Delaware and has about 19,000 people. Deleware has about a million. Therefore you say that the people of Delaware should have 50 times as much to say about what happens in Lincoln County than the people who live there. Then there are more people in places like New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago than in Deleware, so they should have even more to say about what happens in Lincoln County. Then we have a global economy, so countries like China and India should really be the ones who say what should happen in Lincoln County. One thing I know about it, I had to leave there and move to Arizona to find work. These city people and Chinese shut down anyone they see doing anything useful in western states.

  7. BLM allows permittees to self-report how many livestock they put out on their respective allotments and for how long. Form 4130-5 “Actual Grazing Use Report” is that one-page document which, according to BLM, can be completed in just 15 minutes. BLM takes the permittees at their word, using Form 4130-5 as the basis on which to bill the ranchers, who then pay their below-market-rate fees … after-the-fact … eventually … maybe … or maybe not. (See Bundy, Cliven.) According to Taxpayers for Common Sense, the direct and indirect costs of the Federal Grazing Program may result in the loss of as much as a billion dollars every year.

    In Nevada, a number of permittees have defied BLM’s authority to rest certain allotments due to drought. But instead of penalizing the scofflaws, BLM pandered to them, waiving fines and allowing the illegal grazing to continue. Another permittee openly grazed his cattle beyond the authorized season, racking up nearly $30,000 in fines for repeated willful trespass. But one of his US Senators asked BLM’s Director to reduce the charge to simple trespass — which he did — and to lower the fine — which he also did — to $6,000.

  8. The agencies need to grow a backbone and revoke grazing leases for repeated offenders. The vast majority of the public will support these efforts. The public is tired of livestock destroying riparian habitats and utilizing so much forage that little is left for our diminishing wildlife populations. the situation has gotten better, but many allotments are still over utilized and some need to be retired from livestock grazing.