History and Management of Public Rangelands in the United States: A Case Study from New Mexico

By Alexandra Heller
2015, Vol. 7 No. 04 | pg. 2/3 |

Current Management Practices

Today, any U.S. Citizen or validly licensed business may apply for a grazing permit, as long as they own or control base property that has been identified by the BLM as having preference for grazing privilege. A permit lasts for ten years and may be renewed. The amount of grazing that a rangeland can sustain is determined by the governing agency's range technicians, like James Harmon, and is dependent on ecological factors and market conditions (Gorey 2013). Each grazing district is allotted an amount of Animal Unit Months (AUMs), which is measured by the amount of forage needed to sustain one cow and her calf, one horse, or five sheep or goats for a month (Gorey 2013).

The permit determines how many livestock animals a rancher can graze. The permittee is then charged a Federal grazing fee, depending on how many AUMs their permit allows. The Federal grazing fee cannot fall below $1.35 per AUM and cannot vary from the previous year's fee by an increase or decrease exceeding twenty-five percent. The formula by which the Federal grazing fee is calculated takes three market factors into consideration: current private grazing land lease prices, beef cattle prices, and the cost of livestock production. It is illustrated in management policies such as this that the Federal government manages these lands with the intention of maintaining stability in the livestock industry, one of the clearly stated goals of the TGA.

Controversy on Public Rangelands

Despite the comprehensive management plans that have been developed by the BLM and other agencies within the last century, public rangelands are controversial. There is tension between multiple-use policy stakeholders, particularly those with commercial and conservation interests. It seems that often their management ideals are in direct opposition. Conservationists and environmentalists accuse the governing agencies of prioritizing commercial interests above conservation and recreational uses. Although the presence of livestock affects a greater proportion of public land than do roads, timber harvest, and wildfires combined, attempts to alleviate the ecological effects of livestock by management agencies are minor in comparison to efforts focused on preventing the ecological threats posed by these other land uses (Beschta, Donahue, DellaSala, Rhodes, Karr, O'Brien, Fleischner, & Williams 2012).

In November of 2012, the watchdog organization Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility filed a scientific integrity complaint against the BLM over a planned study of ecological trends in the grazing allotments that they manage (Peterson 2012). The BLM had instructed their scientists to consider the influence of ecological events such as wildfires, invasive species, urban sprawl, and climate change; livestock grazing was not a factor that the BLM intended their scientists to take into account. When stakeholders became anxious about potential lawsuits and insufficient data, the BLM decided to include grazing in their report, but did not distinguish the impacts of domestic livestock from those of the wild and feral ungulates who also graze in these areas (Peterson 2012).

Though livestock grazing is not the only stress imposed onto these rangelands, it is an influential factor affecting the ecological condition of these lands and must not be ignored. These are just a few examples of the controversies that have surfaced regarding the management practices of public rangelands.

Ecology of Rangelands

Western ranches under private ownership have been cited by Eno (2011) as vital to the conservation of wildlife biodiversity and winter ranges, as well as supportive of the agriculture, recreation, transportation, and energy grids that support urban centers in the West. It is because private ranches host the bulk of riparian areas and are centered around the region's lifeblood, water, that they remain important socio-economic assets to the West. While the impacts of grazing on vegetation are transparent, livestock grazing also affects water, soils, nutrients, and wildlife in ways that are more difficult to measure (Sayre 2001). Sayre (2001) argues that rangeland systems can tolerate the disturbance caused by grazing because most grasses can survive when some of their biomass has been removed, and that the removal of biomass promotes vigor and efficiency in some grasses. It is generally accepted that grasses and grazing animals coevolved, and are thus adapted to coexist (Sayre 2001). However, domestic livestock grazing has different effects on the landscape than grazing by native wildlife species (Beschta et al. 2012).

Because the majority of rangelands are arid or semi-arid landscapes, they are prone to disturbances such as drought, fire, and flood (Sayre, 2001). In addition to these natural, stochastic events that shape abiotic landscape factors and biotic communities, the anthropogenic stress of livestock grazing is imposed onto these already stressed rangeland environments. Resilience to disturbance is one measure of ecosystem health; however, there is a point at which disturbance becomes too great for the ecosystem to recover (Costanza & Mageau 1999).

“Ecologists generally agree that drier lands are most at risk of losing biological diversity to livestock grazing and other human-caused disturbances: the more arid the climate, the more likely and more severe are the ecological impacts of grazing by introduced ungulates” (Donahue 2000).

An entire discipline of range science has developed to encompass the needs for responsible, informed ranchers and land managers.

Can ranching be sustainable? Sayre (2001) believed that it can, and that to do so the practice of ranching must transform a natural, self-reproducing resource into a commodity without undermining the long-term viability of the resource. A more comprehensive question is whether a sustainable, healthy livestock industry can coexist with a sustainable, healthy ecosystem. The impacts of livestock grazing are site-specific and vary depending on factors such as livestock species and density (Sayre 2001). To be sustainable, an ecosystem must maintain organization, vigor, and resilience (Costanza & Mageau 1999). Managing a rangeland for the health of the livestock industry necessitates managing the ecosystem for vigor, or productivity.

On these rangelands, production of forage means production of livestock. A cow eats two percent of its body weight every day, which can equate to twenty-five pounds per animal per day. In the South Chiflo grazing area, you can find occasional mesh cages installed to protect the vegetation from being eaten by livestock and wildlife. These cages are a common measurement of system vigor used by the BLM on rangelands. Later in the season, the BLM will cut and weigh the vegetation within these cages as a quantitative assessment of whether the forage is adequate to sustain livestock and has grown sufficiently to recover from being grazed during the upcoming season. Ecosystem health is scale-dependent, and the caged forage represents a sample of plant individuals from the community. In managing for the vigor of rangelands, the BLM struggles primarily against drought conditions and the effects of long-term overgrazing.

Rangelands must also be managed for resilience, so that livestock can be rotated seasonally back into a replenished grazing area. While certain grazing districts are open to the permittee year round, most are open for between two and six months, at the height of plant production. Livestock, contained by fences in grazing allotments, must be rotated by the rancher. James Harmon explained that one of his main tasks as a range technician is public relations. He must enforce the removal of livestock for rest periods of the grazing districts that he manages.

While some ranchers understand that the removal of their livestock is important to maintain the resilience of these areas, others are reluctant to remove their livestock from grazing districts when there appears to be an abundance of forage. Native ungulates practicing natural grazing methods encourage resilience by leaving a grazing area when forage has been depleted and returning after a period of rest (Sayre 2001).The U.S. Fish and Wildlife department works with the BLM to ensure that there are forested corridors through which native ungulates can safely practice natural rotations. It is presumable that without adequate corridors, natural grazing methods could be disrupted and resilience decreased.

Organization is related to species diversity and the patterns of exchange between system components (Costanza & Mageau 1999). It has been suggested that livestock grazing is the major factor negatively affecting native wildlife in eleven western states (Beschta et al. 2012). Structural changes to rangelands, such as fences and roads, can inhibit the free movement of wildlife and contribute to landscape fragmentation (Beschta et al. 2012). The presence of livestock, in combination with a changing climate, has transformed many former grasslands into shrublands with minimal herbaceous cover (Beschta et al. 2012).

This is the case in the South Chiflo management area. As the vegetative understory disappears, so do wildlife species who depend on it for food or cover. Biological soil crusts are an integral characteristic of many arid and semi-arid regions, comprising as much as seventy percent of the living ground cover (Biological Soil Crusts 2011). They are a diverse community of cyanobacteria, lichens, mosses, microfungi, and green algae (Biological Soil Crusts 2011). These communities help protect against wind erosion and dust emission, as well as enhance fertility, soil stability, and hydrology (Beschta et al. 2012). These crusts are extensively damaged and eliminated by livestock trampling (Beschta et al. 2012). The destruction of these crucial soil crusts illustrates the difficulty and importance of scale-dependent ecosystem management. The extensive communities of microscopic individuals are as important to ecosystem health as individual plants and entire pastures.

Before human intervention, fire maintained native grasslands and the pinon-juniper forests of northern New Mexico. The second grazing allotment that I visit with James Harmon is on the side of Pot Mountain. The areas that burned in a wildfire here fourteen years ago have left marks and patterns across the landscape that look almost identical to those that have been created by the BLM's management strategies. The fire that ravaged this hillside in 2000 started with a lightning striking on the ridge of the mountain, and it cleared several large swatches of hillside. The rest of the mountain remains densely forested. James and his colleagues were brought on site after the initial spread of wildfire to control the direction in which the fire would burn.

This method of harnessing and controlling a wildfire is used as a management technique in addition to prescribed burns. Though fire is classified as an ecological disturbance, it is beneficial to many ecosystems, particularly grasslands. Fire consumes accumulated plant litter and organic matter, which can lead to an increase in available resources to remaining and newly colonizing plants, and nutrients bound in organic compounds can be released through the process of pyromineralization (Smith & Smith 2009).

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