The use of public land for cattle grazing is a political hot potato and one that can easily burn the federal Bureau of Land Management. But the BLM can't rightfully avoid dealing with the practice, no matter how unpleasant, because grazing can ruin riparian areas, dirty public waters and damage wildlife habitat.
And the agency's mission is to balance multiple uses of public lands so that one doesn't preclude the others.
Grazing is one of the West's traditional industries and one that conservative lawmakers in Utah staunchly defend. But science now provides better data on its impacts. The BLM should follow its own policy, which prohibits political interference with, or manipulation of, scientific work.
A court case and a misconduct complaint recently highlighted the BLM's seeming affinity for ranchers at the expense of a healthy environment. If proven, that affinity should be replaced by a more objective assessment of all factors affecting public lands.
An administrative law judge will rule on a dispute pitting two environmental groups against the BLM's grazing policies in the Duck Creek area near Bear Lake. The groups have been intensely studying the effects of cattle grazing on native grasses and willows that are essential habitat for the threatened sage grouse. They contend that the BLM renewed grazing leases without doing enough to protect the grouse habitat.
And they dispute a claim by ranchers, local officials and the BLM that the condition of the riparian areas has improved. Those areas entice cattle to trample stream banks and overgraze on plants needed by wildlife.
Meanwhile, in November the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility filed a scientific misconduct complaint with the Department of Interior that says the BLM intentionally removed a study of grazing disturbance from the agency's $40 million Rapid Ecoregional Assessments project to map ecological trends throughout the West.
Scientists were asked to choose the "change agents" such as fire or invasive species that would be part of the study. According to PEER, when the scientific teams were assembled, BLM managers told them that grazing would not be studied due to anxiety from "stakeholders," fear of litigation and lack of available data on grazing impacts.
One incredulous scientist was quoted in workshop minutes as saying, "We will be laughed out of the room if we don't use grazing. If you have the other range of disturbances, you have to include grazing."
We agree. The impact of grazing is too great to be ignored.