At least 26 land uses and related effects threaten sage-grouse, none more pervasive than domestic livestock grazing. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the largest landowner in the American West, administers approximately 18,000 grazing permits and leases to graze almost 13 million animal unit months on 160 million acres of public lands, including large swaths of sage-grouse habitat. The U.S. Forest Service also permits grazing on millions of acres of sage-grouse range. More than 99 percent of remaining sagebrush steppe has been affected by livestock and approximately 30 percent has been heavily grazed.
Grazing can negatively affect sage-grouse in a variety of ways1 and livestock management was an identified planning issue in each of the fifteen draft plan amendments and sub-regional environmental impact statements (plans) developed under the federal National Greater Sage-Grouse Planning Strategy.
In March, conservation organizations sent a letter to the Departments of the Interior and Agriculture urging the BLM and the Forest Service to adopt adequate regulatory mechanisms in the final plans to manage grazing to avoid harming sage-grouse—and to immediately incorporate them into grazing permits as terms and conditions for grazing use on associated grazing allotments. Current law allows both agencies to update grazing permits in the land use planning process, rather than wait to implement the new measures over many years as each 10-year permit comes up for renewal.
The organizations also recommended that federal agencies adopt measures to facilitate voluntary grazing permit retirement on allotments in sage-grouse habitat. While every one of the draft plans developed under the planning strategy would continue livestock grazing in sage-grouse range, most of them also recognized the benefits of eliminating grazing to conserve the species.2
In fact, all fifteen draft plans analyzed voluntary grazing permit retirement as a mechanism for conserving the species in at least one management alternative. Nine of them included some form of voluntary grazing permit retirement in their preferred alternatives (typically limited to priority habitat areas),3 including the now final Resource Management Plan for the Lander Field Office.4
Federal agencies are increasingly using voluntary grazing permit retirement to resolve grazing conflicts on public lands. Willing permittees are usually compensated by a third party to relinquish their grazing permits for retirement, typically by a conservation or sporting organization or other public lands user group.
Voluntary grazing permit retirement may be a particularly useful tool in sagebrush habitat mitigation programs, which could also provide the funds needed to facilitate retirement. Permit retirement offers measureable, and durable conservation benefits that comport with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Greater Sage-Grouse Range-Wide Mitigation Framework (2014) and the Department of the Interior’s A Strategy for Improving the Mitigation Policies and Practices of The Department of the Interior (2014).
The BLM and Forest Service can improve voluntary grazing permit retirement provisions in the final sage-grouse plans. Many of the preferred alternatives in draft plans that would allow for grazing permit retirement also imposed extra conditions that could hinder retiring permits in practice. For example, some plans would require land managers to prepare additional (and unnecessary) analysis before determining whether to retire permits voluntarily relinquished by grazing permittees. Others would allow managers to accept permits for retirement, but then convert the associated grazing allotments into reserve allotments or grass banks for future grazing use, potentially diminishing their conservation value.
The BLM and Forest Service should adopt a simple, straight-forward provision in the Records of Decision for sage-grouse plans that would immediately retire grazing permits in priority habitat for sage-grouse wherever and whenever ranchers might decide to relinquish them. Doing so would be a win-win for wildlife and willing grazing permittees alike.
1 Livestock grazing is considered the single most important influence on sagebrush habitats and fire regimes throughout the Intermountain West in the past 140 years (Knick et al. 2005: 68). Grazing remains the most widespread use of sagebrush steppe and almost all sagebrush habitat is managed for grazing (Connelly et al. 2004; Knick et al. 2003; Knick et al. 2011). Livestock grazing disturbs the soil, removes native vegetation, spreads invasive species and limits productivity in sagebrush steppe (Knick et al. 2005; Knick et al. 2003; Reisner et al. 2013; West 1983). Cattle or sheep grazing in sage-grouse nesting and brood-rearing habitat can negatively affect habitat quality; nutrition for gravid hens; clutch size; nesting success; and/or chick survival (Connelly and Braun 1997; Beck and Mitchell 2000; Barnett and Crawford 1994; Coggins 1998; Aldridge and Brigham 2003). Livestock may directly compete with sage-grouse for grasses, forbs and shrub species; trample vegetation and sage-grouse nests; disturb individual birds and cause nest abandonment (Vallentine 1990; Pederson et al. 2003; Call and Maser 1985; Holloran and Anderson 2005; Coates 2007).
Grazing management was identified as a threat to sage-grouse by three expert panels and in recent reviews (Connelly et al. 2011b: 555-556, Tables 24.1, 24.2). Impacts attributable to historic or heavy grazing in sage-grouse habitat have not been remedied because plant communities are still not given rest from grazing, even under ecologically oriented grazing schemes (Connelly et al. 2004: 7-30 – 7-31, citing others). Furthermore, water developments have increased the area that can be grazed, increasing the distribution and often the intensity of grazing, so that even where livestock numbers have been reduced, they still exert a significant influence on those habitats (Connelly et al. 2004: 7-33). “Even though livestock numbers [are] considerably [reduced from historic use], and management across the West has steadily improved, acres continue to transition away from reference (historic, potential, and [or] desired) conditions” (Manier et al. 2013, citing Cagney et al. 2010). Federal government scientists have suggested that “livestock grazing across the public lands of western landscapes … will continue to impact the quality of those habitats and their ability to support source populations of sagebrush bird species” (Rich et al. 2005: 592).
2 The BLM has identified multiple benefits of eliminating livestock grazing in draft sage-grouse plans, including in the draft Northwest Colorado plan: “[e]limination of livestock grazing…would maintain or improve overall watershed health and water quality…decrease hoof compaction of soil surfaces. When combined with the annual freeze-thaw cycle, this may decrease soil bulk density and improve soil moisture conditions, which facilitates vegetation germination and root development. Removing livestock would also increase plant litter and live vegetative ground cover, which would provide more protection from wind and water erosion. Eliminating livestock grazing…would also eliminate water quality impacts associated with the deposition of manure and urine into surface water (Northwest Colorado: 776). As the agency stated in its draft supplement to the Bighorn Basin plan, “even where sagebrush steppe evolved with some herbivory, removing livestock from the landscape would be a net benefit for sage-grouse” (Bighorn Basin Supplemental ES-9, 4-76, emphasis added).
3 The draft Billings and Pompey’s Pillar National Monument (2-116 – 2-117, Table 2-6.2), HiLine (68), Idaho and Southwestern Montana (alternative D, vol. 2, 2-137, Table 2-18, D-LG/RM-7), Miles City (2-50, Table 2.1, Action 24), Nevada and Northeastern California (ch. 2, 207, Table 2-5, Action D-LG 23), Oregon (2-86, Table 2-6, D-LG/RM 26), South Dakota (37) and Wyoming (2-182, Table 2-5) plans include some form of voluntary grazing permit retirement in their preferred alternatives. Six plans considered voluntary grazing permit retirement in management alternatives other than the preferred alternative, including the Bighorn (Bighorn Basin Supplemental EIS: 2-35, Alternatives E and F); Lewistown (2-35, Table 2-4, Alternatives B and C); North Dakota (2-29, Table 2-3 (Alternatives B and C); Northwest Colorado (159, Table 2-4, Alternatives B and C); and Utah (2-83, Table 2-1, Alternatives B and C2) plans. The draft Buffalo plan proposed designating and managing “resource reserve” allotments in the preferred alternative (169, Table 2.31, Grazing-6020), which the BLM indicated in the draft Northwest Colorado plan could be created through voluntary grazing permit retirement (736).
4 Lander ROD: 98, Record 606. The Record of Decision for the Lander plan also defines grazing permit “retirement” as “[e]nding livestock grazing on a specific area of land” (i.e., the associated grazing allotment) (Lander ROD: 175).