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Grazing Improvement Act, by Jetta H. Mathews

On December 19, 2014, the President signed into law changes to the permit system for grazing on public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service.  The changes are part of the “Grazing Improvement Act” legislation which has been sponsored in the House by Representative Raul Labrador of Idaho, and in the Senate by Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming, in the past few years.  The bill was co-sponsored by Representative Simpson and Senators Risch and Crapo.  The changes are expected to help reduce the backlog of grazing permit renewals and provide more stability for ranching families.  As of September 2014, the BLM alone had a backlog of over five thousand permits.

The new law does not include some of the changes included in previous bills: the maximum length of a grazing permit will not be extended from ten years to twenty years, it does not limit who can appeal grazing permitting decisions, and there is no provision requiring a party that brings a lawsuit against renewing a permit and loses the lawsuit to pay the rancher’s legal fees.  However, the bill will make the renewal process for livestock grazing permits more streamlined and predictable for ranchers.  The bill makes permanent a provision included in previous appropriations bills that allows permits to be renewed while the environmental impact study is taking place.  The new legislation significantly changes what activities are subject to environmental analysis and when the analysis must take place.  Major provisions include:

  • A grazing permit or lease that has expired must be continued under the same terms and conditions until the issuing agency completes the environmental analysis and documentation required by law. The analysis is no longer required to be completed before a permit can be renewed.  After the environmental analysis is completed, the government can cancel, suspend, or modify the lease or permit based on its findings.
  • Environmental reviews for allotments that share similar ecological conditions can now be combined into one review.
  • A permit or lease may be issued without an environmental assessment if the permit or lease would continue the current grazing management of the allotment and the government has assessed the allotment and determined that the allotment is either (1) meeting land health standards or objectives in the applicable land and resource management plan; or (2) not meeting those standards or objectives because of factors other than existing livestock grazing.
  • Livestock trailing and crossing of public lands are exempted from environmental assessments or environmental impact statements.
  • The government can determine the priority and timing for completing each environmental analysis based on the environmental significance of the allotment and the available funding for the environmental analysis.

Although the President’s budget called for a reduction in the budget for grazing and range programs, the legislation passed by Congress maintained the current levels of funding.  While livestock and agricultural groups have praised the passage of the bill, environmental groups have opposed it.  According to the Center for Biological Diversity, continuing grazing while the environmental assessment is conducted will endanger threatened species, especially sage grouse.  Senator Crapo, a proponent of the Grazing Improvement Act, however, sees the provisions as addressing a backlog of renewals that has been caused by litigation by environmental groups.

Although some processes for permit renewal have changed, ranchers must still comply with range health standards to qualify for renewals.  Ranchers play a key role in managing the health of the rangelands they utilize, providing practical, on the ground insight into range conditions.  A recent agreement between the BLM and the Idaho State Department of Agriculture recognizes that ranchers can play a key role in managing rangelands.  In August 2014, the BLM and the Idaho State Department of Agriculture entered into a memorandum of understanding that will provide ranchers with greater opportunity to help monitor the range conditions.  Under the MOU, permit holders can assist in photographic monitoring of the range conditions.  Ranchers will take photographs of range conditions on their allotment throughout the year.  This information, along with data gathered by the BLM, will be used in making permit renewal decisions.

The BLM manages over 245 million acres of rangeland nationally, allowing grazing on approximately 157 million acres.  In Idaho, the BLM manages almost 12 million acres and allocates 825,000 animal unit months.

Jetta H. Mathews  is committed to providing accurate, thorough, and effective representation to each of her clients.  Her primary practice areas are commercial litigation, medical malpractice defense and workers’ compensation defense. Jetta’s practice also includes representing clients in cases related to the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.  Whether the case involves a business dispute, personal injury, or property damage claim, Ms. Mathews creates a strategy for obtaining a favorable result. She can be reached at jah@moffatt.com.  More information is available at www.moffatt.com