Cows chewing grass may look boring, but grazing has become a major driver of America’s public lands management.

Last week, Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., co-sponsored a bill that would double the length of grazing leases on federal land from 10 to 20 years. The week before, Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., introduced the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, which guaranteed grazing access as a major component holding its coalition of ranchers, environmentalists and conservation groups together. And Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., sponsored Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, which made several changes to accommodate grazing leases in proposed wilderness and recreation areas.

The Grazing Improvement Act of 2012 is needed, according to Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., because ranchers need protection from activists trying to block public-land grazing.

“The (Bureau of Land Management) and Forest Service simply cannot keep up with required (National Environmental Policy Act) analysis due to limited funding and a backlog of lawsuits by the anti-grazing, pro-litigation groups,” Barrasso said at a Senate subcommittee last week. He claimed family ranches were being forced out of business by those groups.

“That would be us,” said Tom Woodbury of the Western Watersheds Group in Missoula. “That’s who he’s talking about.”

And the reason, according to Woodbury, is that public-land grazing makes no sense in arid mountains and prairies like Montana.

“It takes so much land to feed a cow in the West compared to more humid parts of the country, it’s became a huge land issue,” Woodbury said. “They needed all that space to maintain their herds.”

In 2012, the whole United States had 90 million cows, of which 2.5 million were in Montana, according to the 2012 cattle inventory from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The top cattle producers were Texas (13.3 million), Kansas (6.3 million), Nebraska (6.2 million), California (5.2 million) and Oklahoma (5.1 million).

Of those top states, all but California have no BLM grazing. California’s BLM grazing supports $5.1 million worth of cattle, compared to Montana’s $32.9 million, according to Department of Interior statistics. The total value of the U.S. cattle and calf production in 2010 (the latest year available) was $37 billion.

The unaccounted cost, according to Woodbury, comes in ruined stream courses, weed-infested meadows, displaced wildlife and the loss of an ecosystem that used to dominate Montana’s landscape.

“We have almost no knowledge what a healthy sagebrush steppe looks like,” Woodbury said. “It’s been grazed for 100 years. Even our parents don’t have a memory of what these lands are supposed to look like.”

Montana has about 4,000 ranchers with grazing leases on BLM land. Another 1,000 lease Forest Service land. A few hold rights with both agencies.

At the hearing, BLM Deputy Director Mike Pool acknowledged his agency was behind on about 4,200 grazing lease renewals nationwide. Few, if any of those are in Montana, according to Jay Bodner of the Montana Stockgrowers Association.

“It’s very critical these producers have that ability to graze on private and federal land, and they take that responsibility very seriously,” Bodner said. “They have a responsibility to manage those lands similar to what they do on their private lands. We have close to 90 percent of allotments meeting standards. That’s a very good reflection that ranchers are doing a good job of managing the land.”

The congressional bill sponsored by Barrasso and Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, in the House would extend grazing leases from 10 years to 20. Although critics of the measure said it makes no sense to give 20-year leases when the federal agency land management plans only have a 15-year lifespan, Bodner said the stability was necessary.

“If I’m a producer with grazing allotments, doing a good job, I should be able to renew that without a tremendous amount of paperwork and hassle,” he said. “There’s still an allowance for corrections to be made to take care of the resource. What it boils down to, is the bureaucracy has become so dominated by writing the (environmental impact statements) that rangeland techs spend all their time doing paperwork instead of being on the ground.”

That didn’t mollify either the BLM’s Pool or Leslie Weldon, deputy chief of the U.S. Forest Service. Both testified in opposition to the bill as written. Pool said his agency couldn’t support its automatic permit renewal provision without better assurances permittees were meeting the land-use standards. He also said the bill would limit public involvement in environmental reviews.

Weldon wondered how the bill’s new appeals process would match the Forest Service’s shift to an objection-based system.

BLM has 17,750 grazing leases covering 160 million acres and 12.3 million cow-calf pairs. The Forest Service has 6,800 leases on 94 million acres, supporting 8.3 million cow-calf pairs.

A crucial factor in these calculations, according to Arizona University Law School professor Jay Feller, is the relative cost of state and private grazing land. Federal grazing leases cost $1.35 per animal-unit month. That’s the value of how much grass an adult steer or a cow-calf pair eats (which is around 36 pounds a day, according to Ranch Resource Magazine).

By comparison, private grazing land costs about $18 per animal-unit month.

“In a wilderness area, you can’t drill for oil or other commercial activities, but we allow grazing,” Feller said. “That tells you the hold on the political system that ranching has. Every other activity – mining, gas drilling, logging – is more productive on public lands, but grazing is the one that gets the pass.”

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