Cattle grazing in Oregon
In Oregon and Washington, the Bureau of Land Management oversees permitting on about 14 million acres of rangeland, most of it in Oregon. (Photo by Getty Images)

The Bureau of Land Management has been renewing livestock grazing permits on public lands in Oregon without a thorough environmental analysis, including on overgrazed land, according to two new reports. 

The Western Watersheds Project and the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, both nonprofit environmental advocacy groups, released the reports earlier this month. 

In its report, Western Watersheds found that the bureau had repeatedly renewed permits for livestock grazing on public lands in Oregon without undertaking new environmental assessments, a requirement for permit renewal under the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA. 

The Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility found that the bureau was allowing grazing on areas that did not meet state land health standards and had been overgrazed. When rangelands are overgrazed, it can create desert conditions on semi-arid rangelands, harming other wildlife and exacerbating drought. 

The bureau said it undertakes annual assessments unrelated to permit renewal. 

“A NEPA assessment can be a time-consuming process and labor intensive,” Sarah Bennett, the BLM’s chief of public affairs for Oregon and Washington, told the Capital Chronicle. “Our goal is to keep rangelands functioning properly.”

Renewal without onsite investigation

In Oregon and Washington, the Bureau of Land Management oversees permitting on about 14 million acres of rangeland, most of it in Oregon. Grazing permits come up for renewal every 10 years.

In Mountain Spring in eastern Oregon, the BLM has allowed 2,470 cattle to seasonally graze on federal land for several decades.

In its analysis, Western Watersheds found that the site in Mountain Spring hadn’t received an onsite environmental assessment since 1999. It said other BLM grazing areas in Oregon hadn’t had a full assessment since the 1970s, meaning their grazing permits had been renewed four to five times over the decades without federal officials going to the sites and conducting a full assessment. In the analyses, officials check on the abundance of  native plant and animal life in grazing areas as well as the impact of animals congregating near rivers and streams. 

Bennett said the bureau often monitors and assesses grazing land through 10 regional offices in the state.

“Rangeland specialists and range technicians go out frequently to inspect land, and to keep tabs on how many animals an allotment can support to protect its health,” she said. 

Matt McElligott, chair of the public lands committee at the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, said all grazing land managed by the BLM in eastern Oregon are visited annually by officials from its local offices. The association represents more than 10,000 ranchers in Oregon.

McElligott said someone typically comes out before and after grazing season to check on the health of the land, especially around rivers and streams, where cattle tend to congregate. 

“The idea that you’re given a permit and 10 years goes by and no one looks at the ground again, that’s not the real world,” McElligott said. 

He said most ranchers only undergo the full assessment when there have been substantial changes, like the addition of more livestock or a fire.

“It’s not necessary unless something dramatic has happened,” McElligott said. 

Nevertheless, Adam Bronstein, the director of Oregon and Nevada operations for Western Watersheds, said when decades go by without an onsite inspection, vulnerable animal species pay a price. 

“Grazing affects native populations of bighorn sheep, antelope, fish like cutthroat and red band trout,” he said. The exceptions that allow the bureau to delay or avoid doing onsite environmental analysis are “a rubber stamp to kick these issues down the road,” Bronstein said. “They’re not looking at issues that are compounding on the landscape.”

The environmental assessments done during the renewal process are the only opportunity the public has to express concerns. During the last decade, 82% of grazing permits on BLM-managed lands in Oregon were renewed without a full environmental assessment, according to Western Watersheds’ analysis.

“That means the public has been cut out of the process every time the permit was up for renewal,” Bronstein said. “BLM is choosing to kind of look the other way.” 

Grazing standards 

Each state sets environmental standards for grazing on public land. Shrubs have to be maintained at a certain height or only a specified amount of bare earth is allowed. 

In Oregon, about 5 million acres of federal land used for grazing did not meet the state’s health standards for one or more reasons, according to an analysis by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. That’s about half of all the grazing land the bureau manages in the state. 

In most of those areas, the land was overgrazed. Chandra Rosenthal, director of the group’s Rocky Mountain office in Colorado, said the bureau is reneging on a central responsibility to sustain public lands in perpetuity.

“BLM is the largest land management agency in the country. We count on this agency to manage these giant swaths of land that are super essential to biodiversity, maintaining the health of native species, to public recreation – all the things that you hope to see around for the next generations,” Rosenthal said. “And they are still grazing cattle and sheep on land failing to meet the agency’s own standards.”

Lack of resources

Both environmental groups and the Cattlemen’s Association said the BLM needs more resources. 

“Are they understaffed? Yeah they need more staff,” McElligott said. Making a full environmental assessment mandatory for every grazing permit renewal would further burden them, he said. 

“It would be a waste of time and money,” McElligott said.  

Rosenthal is hopeful that more resources will flow to the agency under the Biden administration.

“We understand they’d like to build the capacity back up. There were a lot of cuts during the Trump administration,” Rosenthal said. “What our research shows is that the agency doesn’t have the capacity to do what they need to do. There are not enough people on the ground.”

Bennett said the agency is committed to doing what it can with what it has. 

“Our resources are determined by Congress. We are trying to meet our mandates and responsibilities with the resources we have to the best of our abilities.”

Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Les Zaitz for questions: Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.

Alex Baumhardt has been a national radio producer focusing on education for American Public Media since 2017. She has reported from the Arctic to the Antarctic for national and international media, and from Minnesota and Oregon for The Washington Post. She previously worked in Iceland and Qatar and was a Fulbright scholar in Spain where she earned a master's degree in digital media. She's been a kayaking guide in Alaska, farmed on four continents and worked the night shift at several bakeries to support her reporting along the way.