Nevada ranchers suffer from self-deluded drought denial


Data Backs BLM Manager’s Allotment Cuts in Face of “Cowboy Express” Protest

Washington, DC — A U.S. Bureau of Land Management District Manager from Nevada targeted by angry Nevada ranchers was more than justified in removing cattle from drought-stricken public rangeland, according to data released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Tomorrow, protesting ranchers start a “Cowboy Express” ride to Washington demanding removal of BLM Battle Mountain District Manager Douglas Furtado as an “abusive federal employee” even as conservation groups urge that Furtado be commended not condemned for his actions.

Like much of the West, Nevada has been in the grips of persistent drought, with nearly 90% of the state under “severe to exceptional” drought for three consecutive years. This, in turn, causes greater conflict over dwindling water and forage. Not surprisingly, Nevada has also become Ground Zero for rising tensions on range management as illustrated by this spring’s armed standoff with renegade rancher Cliven Bundy who has been illegally grazing his cattle in southern Nevada for more than a decade.

“We all know about climate deniers, but this is the first we’ve heard of drought deniers,” stated PEER Advocacy Director Kirsten Stade, pointing out that much of Furtado’s Battle Mountain District has been among the hardest hit by drought in Nevada. “If we are to believe the ranchers, an extreme, multiyear, regionwide drought has magically spared only their allotments.”

In July, Battle Mountain District Manager Furtado ordered livestock removed from parched range on the sprawling 332,000-acre Argenta allotment in northern Nevada after conditions fell below thresholds that ranchers and BLM had previously agreed would trigger removal. The ranchers contend that Furtado’s actions were arbitrary but an analysis of Geographic Information Systems and BLM data reveal range in terrible ecological shape:

Nearly every Battle Mountain allotment evaluated failed range health standards for wildlife and water quality, largely due to livestock grazing;

Half of the Argenta Allotment, and roughly 30% of the Battle Mountain District is habitat for sage grouse, a species being reviewed for listing under the Endangered Species Act. BLM has been directed to protect the species’ habitat but 90% of assessed sage grouse habitat was in Battle Mountain allotments failing standards due to livestock; and
Fence line contrasts visible in satellite imagery show that public lands in the checkerboarded allotment are far more heavily grazed than private lands, suggesting that ranchers are more protective of their own lands than they are of publicly-owned range.

“Doug Furtado should be praised, not pilloried, for doing his job,” Stade added, noting a letter of support sent today from PEER and Western Watersheds Project urging that BLM as an agency to do more to stand up for its employees when they attempt to protect public resources. “The Cowboy Express is actually a cynical attempt to use iconic imagery to mask selfish abuse of public lands. If ranchers will not be responsible stewards then conscientious land managers have to make hard decisions, as Doug Furtado has done.”

Western Watersheds Project intervened in the Argenta case when ranchers initially refused to remove their cattle despite their previous agreement. Even after an order from an Interior Department administrative law judge affirmed the BLM’s authority to remove the livestock, as many as 100 cattle remain on the Argenta allotment to this day.

“The rancher resistance to drought protections in Battle Mountain is aimed at preventing effective protection of public lands and sage-grouse habitats across the West,” said Katie Fite, Western Watersheds Project’s Biodiversity Director. “It is meant to intimidate other federal agency managers so that they turn a blind eye to habitat degradation.”

The records for all roughly 20,000 BLM allotments across the West, many of which show similar overgrazed conditions, will be displayed next month in a new PEER website documenting longstanding and serious ecological impacts caused by ongoing livestock overgrazing.


See the data on Range Conditions in the Battle Mountain District

Read letter in support of Doug Furtado

View the denial of the permittees’ appeal of BLM’s decision

Look at heavy hoof-print of commercial grazing in the West

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Livestock’s Heavy Hooves Impair One-Third of BLM Rangelands

33 Million Acres of BLM Grazing Allotments Fail Basic Rangeland Health Standards

WASHINGTON – May 14 – A new federal assessment of rangelands in the West finds a disturbingly large portion fails to meet range health standards principally due to commercial livestock operations, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).  In the last decade as more land has been assessed, estimates of damaged lands have doubled in the 13-state Western area where the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) conducts major livestock leasing.

The “Rangeland Inventory, Monitoring and Evaluation Report for Fiscal Year 2011” covers BLM allotments in Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.  The report totals BLM acreage failing to meet rangeland health standards in measures such as water quality, watershed functionality and wildlife habitat:

  • Almost 40% of BLM allotments surveyed since 1998 have failed to meet the agency’s own required land health standards with impairment of more than 33 million acres, an area exceeding the State of Alabama in size, attributed to livestock grazing;
  • Overall, 30% of BLM’s allotment area surveyed to date suffers from significant livestock-induced damage, suggesting that once the remaining allotments have been surveyed, the total impaired area could well be larger than the entire State of Washington; and
  • While factors such as drought, fire, invasion by non-native plants, and sprawl are important, livestock grazing is identified by BLM experts as the primary cause (nearly 80%) of BLM lands not meeting health standards.

“Livestock’s huge toll inflicted on our public lands is a hidden subsidy which industry is never asked to repay,” stated PEER Advocacy Director Kirsten Stade, noting that the percentage of impairment in lands assessed remains fairly consistent over the past decade.  “The more we learn about actual conditions, the longer is the ecological casualty list.”

Last November, PEER filed a scientific integrity complaint that BLM had directed scientists to exclude livestock grazing as a factor in changing landscapes as part of a $40 million study, the biggest such effort ever undertaken by BLM.  The complaint was referred to a newly appointed Scientific Integrity Officer for BLM but there are no reports of progress in the agency’s self-investigation in the ensuing months.

At the same time, BLM range evaluations, such as this latest one, use ambiguous categories that mask actual conditions, employing vague terms such as “making significant progress” and “appropriate action has been taken to ensure significant progress” that obscure damage estimates and inflate the perception of restoration progress.  For example, in 2001 nearly 60% of BLM lands (94 million acres, an area larger than Montana) consisted of grazing allotments that were supposed to be managed to “improve the current resource condition” – a number that has stayed unchanged for a decade.

“Commercial livestock operations are clearly a major force driving degradation of wild places, jeopardy to wildlife, major loss of water quality and growing desertification throughout the American West,” Stade added, while noting that BLM has historically been dominated by livestock interests.  “The BLM can no longer remain in denial on the declining health of our vast open range.”


Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) is a national alliance of local state and federal resource professionals. PEER’s environmental work is solely directed by the needs of its members. As a consequence, we have the distinct honor of serving resource professionals who daily cast profiles in courage in cubicles across the country.

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Posted from the PEER press release