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As the demographics of the West change, sportsmen and women can feel good about supporting working ranches that responsibly graze their livestock on public lands—these private landowners and land managers are key partners in conservation and often facilitate hunting and fishing access, unlike the condo complexes that might pop up without them
Private lands make up about 60 percent of the U.S., while hundreds of millions of acres are grazed by livestock. And though it may seem like sportsmen and women only have eyes for public lands, these private lands can also offer critical seasonal habitats and connectivity for fish and wildlife, as well as recreation access.
Working ranches are an incredibly important part of this public-private land fabric—not to mention the Western economy and way of life. But the reliance on public lands for grazing has remained a hot-button issue even after unregulated grazing was curbed by federal law decades ago.
Some of you may immediately think of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and the armed confrontation over his failure to pay grazing fees to the federal government for the use of public lands. Others may have heard groups calling for the outright abolishment of all public land grazing. But smack dab in between these opposing and polarizing views lie most sportsmen and women and tens of thousands of hardworking families who own and manage millions of acres vital to fish and wildlife.
So why does this legitimate use of public lands still get a bad rap?
A Brief History of Grazing in the West
Livestock grazing on both private and public lands dates back to the homesteading era and westward expansion. As iconic and integral as ranching is to the West’s ethos and economy, grazing has also contributed to a long history of controversy and debate over public lands management, from the era of unmanaged sheep and cattle grazing after the Civil War to the Sagebrush Rebellion in the 1970s into the present day.
After decades of unregulated livestock use in the West led to overgrazing and degradation of rangeland and water resources, Congress passed the Taylor Grazing Act in 1934. Today, livestock grazing is much more heavily regulated, yet remains a hot topic, as grazing plays into the complex multiple-use management scheme that must address increasing demands on our federal public lands from a growing human population.
At the heart of this perpetual debate lies a wide range of issues surrounding private property valuation and rights, water quality and usage, endangered species, access to public lands, and habitat for fish and wildlife, among other things. Across Western landscapes, private lands often occur in a “checkerboard” arrangement with federal and state lands, further complicating issues and creating unique challenges for multiple-use management.
Despite the complexities of multiple-use management, maintaining economically viable ranches is of vital importance. The loss of family-owned ranches might mean development on some pretty special landscapes, loss of habitat for native species, or the end of “handshake agreements” for hunting and fishing access.
Not an Either-Or Proposition
So, why is public-land grazing so necessary to keeping these private-lands ranchers in business and on the land? To remain financially solvent, many ranches rely on their own acres AND federal grazing permits. Most of the time, they can’t have one without the other.
The Taylor Grazing Act put tens of millions of acres of public land into grazing districts and smaller units, or allotments. Ranchers apply for renewable 10-year permits to graze on these allotments. Each permittee must own their own base property near the allotment to be eligible and must pay for their use. So, not just anyone can graze their cattle on public lands.
Most Western ranches need both their deeded property and their federal grazing allotments to make an operation economically viable. If ranchers can’t sustain their businesses from the land they own and federal lands they have access to, most will undoubtedly hit a breaking point and sell to a willing buyer. And the sale of existing properties can present new challenges to sportsmen and women.
Private Lands in Other Hands
Much of what happens if a ranch must be sold depends on whether it has a perpetual or long-term easement in place, who buys the land, what their objectives are, and other factors driving the purchase and existing land condition. But a great reason to support responsible ranchers with public land resources is to avoid the risk of what could come next if they sell their property.
While many chunks of land would never be carved up for parking lots, luxury homes, condominiums, commercial real estate, or other development, sub-division of large tracts of land indeed is a real and ominous threat already pervasive across the West. Subdividing private lands does not usually bode well for wildlife conservation or our hunting and fishing access.
Land may transfer hands to another ranching operation—possibly even one with a stronger emphasis on voluntary conservation—but a new landowner could also choose not to re-enroll in a public access program or might move forward with converting wildlife-friendly rangeland to cropland.
The future of private land depends on many things that wind up looking like a roll of the dice in Vegas compared to keeping working lands in knowledgeable working hands.
Partners in Conservation
Landowners are critical to conservation success and thus must be considered necessary partners in conservation. They shouldn’t have to feel threatened by species restoration plans or other resource conservation efforts. Conservation should present opportunities for landowners to keep their lands productive and thriving for both livestock and fish and wildlife.
Ranchers are already doing on-the-ground work through programs like the Sage Grouse Initiative, Partners for Conservation, Working Lands for Wildlife, and Farm Bill conservation programs like Voluntary Public Access.
There can be negative impacts on habitat from improper livestock grazing, and there will likely continue to be issues and disagreements among private landowners and public land users on how public land should be managed. We are all equally accountable to natural resources held in the public trust, whether you own cattle, land, or a hunting license.
Assuming the worst of landowners or attacking their interests does nothing to further conservation. In most cases, they are the worthy stewards of their own lands and our public acres. And losing working ranchlands to development would not bode well for fish, wildlife, or sportsmen in the long run.
Recent angst over sage-grouse conservation, leasing in migration corridors, and water issues should encourage us to strengthen our relationships with all stakeholders interested in finding common ground for conservation and use of our public lands. That includes ranchers who rely on public lands for grazing. The path forward for public and private land management that will sustain conservation is one of continued collaboration and partnership—not polarization.
Aldo Leopold once said: “Conservation will ultimately boil down to rewarding the private landowner who conserves the public interest.” As the contemporary adage goes, the TRCP supports keeping “working lands in working hands.” We will continue working with our organizational partners, plus businesses, landowners, and decision-makers, to ensure that our landscapes provide all Americans quality places to hunt and fish.
Top photo by USDA NRCS Montana.
Protections for a popular chukar hunting destination and important big game winter range are included in one alternative, but not in the preferred
The Bureau of Land Management today released a draft plan for the Four Rivers Field Office in western Idaho. The plan, when completed, will guide land management decisions for 783,000 acres of public lands over the next several decades.
This area includes one of Idaho’s critical mule deer winter ranges and a popular chukar hunting destination, and sportsmen from across the Gem State are asking the BLM to reconsider its priorities going forward.
The draft Resource Management Plan is a first step in a public process of land-use planning that determines how habitat, outdoor recreation opportunities, and development will be balanced in the future. The BLM typically proposes four management options for a planning area and names one preferred alternative.
The agency’s preferred alternative for the Four Rivers Field Office doesn’t properly consider management approaches that would conserve the Bennett Hills. Sportsmen-friendly conservation measures for these intact and undeveloped lands with outstanding big game habitat were drawn up, but not fully incorporated into the BLM’s preferred approach.
“A final Resource Management Plan should fully incorporate backcountry hunting areas and expand upon the limited opportunities currently included in the preferred alternative,” said Rob Thornberry, Idaho field representative with the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “We urge the BLM to complete what they started.”
Thirty-nine outdoor-related businesses and eight sportsmen’s organizations support revising BLM’s Resource Management Plan to better serve the interests of Idaho’s hunters and other outdoor recreationists.
“I have hunted the Bennett Hills for almost 50 years, and I can state emphatically that it is a haven for an enormous amount of wildlife,” said Drew Wahlin, president of the Idaho Chukar Foundation. “It is a bird hunting destination and an essential winter area for the famed King Hill mule deer hunt. It is worthy of protections that help wildlife and sportsmen.”
These popular public lands in central and western Idaho help fuel the state’s $7.8-billion outdoor recreation economy, provide important wildlife habitat, and support various traditional uses of the land. These include IDFG Hunting Units 39, 43, 44, and 45.
“The Bennett Hills are an important hunting destination just a short drive from Boise and Twin Falls,” said Brian Brooks, executive director of the Idaho Wildlife Federation. “The BLM has an opportunity to do right by sportsmen and businesses through the resource management plan, and we are depending on the agency to incorporate measures in the final plan that will safeguard one of our best backcountry hunting areas near Mountain Home.”
Proposal to balance management of important public lands is among the various options in the draft plan but is not at the top of BLM’s list
Today the Bureau of Land Management released the draft Southeast Oregon Resource Management Plan amendment that – when finalized –will guide land management decisions for more than 4.6 million acres of public lands in southeast Oregon over the next 20 years or more. This plan amendment has been underway since 2010 and will determine management on some of Oregon’s most scenic and recreationally important public lands overseen by the BLM’s Vale District office within the Owyhee and Malheur River country.
This is a significant step in the planning process and will help determine how and if habitat, outdoor recreation opportunities, and development are balanced on BLM land. In the draft plan the BLM proposes a variety of options for management and names one preferred alternative. In this case, the agency’s preferred path does not resemble recommendations made by the BLM’s own Southeast Oregon Resource Advisory Council (RAC), a group of 15 individuals selected by the BLM with diverse backgrounds who worked together for more than 5 years to develop recommendations for the plan.
“A broad-based BLM advisory group rolled up their sleeves to create a well-rounded alternative within the Southeast Oregon RMP amendment, but their recommendations are not reflected in the preferred alternative of the draft RMP amendment,” says Michael O’Casey, Oregon field representative with the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “We ask that the BLM honor this stakeholder process and adopt a balanced alternative in the final plan that conserves special places from development, while providing for access, habitat restoration, and ranching to continue.”
Popular public lands in eastern Oregon help fuel the state’s $2.5-billion fish and wildlife-based economy, provide important wildlife habitat, and support various traditional uses of the land. The Vale District manages most of the public lands within the Beulah (65), Malheur River (66), Owyhee (67) and Whitehorse (68) hunting units.
“Oregon’s Owyhee region is a critically important hunting, fishing, and outdoor recreation destination,” says Karl Findling, owner of Oregon Pack Works and conservation lands director for the Oregon Hunters Association. “The BLM has an opportunity to do right by sportsmen and businesses and we are depending on them to incorporate measures in the final plan that will safeguard some of the best hunting areas in the state.”
“The BLM has an opportunity to safeguard some of Oregon’s best hunting areas and wildlife habitat through these land-use plans, and do it in a balanced way,” says Tristan Henry, board member with the Oregon chapter of the Backcountry Hunters & Anglers. “It’s a potential win-win for the varied wildlife we love to pursue, and will help ensure that our valued hunting heritage, outdoor traditions, and way of life can be enjoyed by future generations “
Now that the draft is published, the public has 90 days to make comments and have their voice heard. “Sportsmen and other stakeholders will continue to weigh in as these planning processes move forward,” continued O’Casey. “We hope the BLM will listen.”
Photo: Bureau of Land Management Oregon and Washington via Flickr
Help us urge Congress to lock down the program—and conservation funding—that allows the people who fish local waters to mastermind the projects to improve them
Americans across the country are hitting the water this summer in the hopes of hooking one of many iconic species of fish—from kokanee salmon and cutthroat trout to largemouth bass and red snapper.
You may not realize that there has been a collaborative effort at work behind the scenes for years to expand and guarantee your access to great fishing. The National Fish Habitat Partnership, a collective of 20 diverse groups across every landscape in America, has already succeeded in boosting fish populations through on-the-ground fish habitat conservation projects.
In Pennsylvania, the Fish and Boat Commission, parks department, bass anglers, and local businesses banded together to restore a degraded reservoir, adding more than 800 structures that give fish critical cover to spawn. In New Mexico, partners enhanced desert fish habitat and reopened a key migratory passage between the Navajo River and eight miles of Amargo Creek.
Since 2007, more than 840 projects have been completed across all 50 states. But the future success of these partnerships is perennially threatened.
The National Fish Habitat Partnership initiative has no permanent authorization from the federal government and funding has been cut year after year. But that could change this Congress, thanks to legislation that would secure the future of these collaborative fish habitat improvement projects.
Rather than develop a top-down, inside-the-beltway plan to restore and protect America’s unique fish habitats, the National Fish Habitat Partnership exists at the crossroads of science-based solutions, community partnerships, and state and federal agencies. The 20 Fish Habitat Partnerships focus on the needs of specific regions and ecosystems, each working to forge stronger local and regional partnerships with other key stakeholders to restore and protect fisheries. The program is designed to include a wide range of voices in decision-making.
A national board chaired by a state fish and wildlife agency representative meets three times annually to review projects submitted by the 20 individual partnerships and recommend how funding should be allocated. This isn’t your average federal Board of Directors: Real sportsmen and women unite with local leaders and scientists to steer fish habitat conservation and put the needs of our fish and wildlife first. (In fact, TRCP’s Chief Conservation Officer Christy Plumer is a member of the National Board and has been instrumental in the development and success of the National Fish Habitat Partnership.)
Each of the twenty regional partnerships includes state fish and wildlife professionals, local leaders, and representatives of the conservation community and federal agencies. Committees help determine which projects each region submits to the national board for approval, focusing on the interests of the communities within the partnership’s footprint and ensuring projects are advancing the needs of fish populations close to home.
But none of these individuals can do their jobs while the future of the program, or its funding, is subject to the annual whims of Congress.
This isn’t the first time this model has been used to work better for wildlife: The North American Wetlands Conservation Act has a similar approach. NAWCA provides matching grants to conservation projects across North America to improve habitat for migratory birds, boost water quality, and conserve wetlands ecosystems—and it has been highly successful. Now, it’s time to allow this successful model to work for fish.
(By the way, legislation to reauthorize and fund NAWCA is also pending in both chambers, and Congress should act with expediency here, too.)
The Partnership receives its funding in the annual appropriations bills, but since it isn’t permanently authorized, Congress could decide to defund it without warning, ending community-based support for fish conservation across the nation. Luckily, bills have been introduced in both the Senate and House to fix that: S. 754, introduced this Congress by Sens. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) and Ben Cardin (D-Md.), and H.R. 1747, introduced by Reps. Rob Wittman (R-Va.) and Marc Veasey (D-Texas).
The National Fish Habitat Conservation Through Partnerships Act formally establishes the National Fish Habitat Board and guarantees that all stakeholders—tribes, nonprofits, local and state governments, private sector entities, and the federal government—have a seat at the table. The bill would also enact into law other components of the National Fish Habitat Partnership, including clear decision-making criteria and a process for designating new partnerships.
Importantly, this legislation would fund the program through 2023, with 5 percent dedicated to Indian Tribes and additional resources provided for several key federal agencies to provide scientific and technical assistance to fish habitat partnerships. The bill also sets a cap on administrative costs at 5 percent, preventing federal agencies from redirecting funding from the program to pay for other agency needs during tight budget times.
This five-year authorization would end year-to-year uncertainty, ensuring that each of the partnerships have the ability to plan ahead and do the best work possible.
The National Fish Habitat Partnership is one of North America’s most successful conservation programs, but its continued success, and existence, depends on all of us speaking up for our waterways and the fish that call them home. Please join the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and our partners across the nation in urging Congress to pass the National Fish Habitat Conservation Through Partnerships Act into law.
In the last two years, policymakers have committed to significant investments in conservation, infrastructure, and reversing climate change. Hunters and anglers continue to be vocal about the opportunity to create conservation jobs, restore habitat, and boost fish and wildlife populations. Support solutions now.Learn More