Idaho Lt. Gov. Brad Little told a congressional committee Thursday that livestock grazing on Western public lands provides a host of benefits to American taxpayers.
Chief among those, he said, is the rapid initial attack ranchers make on burgeoning wildfires, which helps keep them to a manageable size.
“That saves you (the federal government) an enormous amount of money,” Little told the House Natural Resource Committee’s federal lands subcommittee, which held a 90-minute hearing on “the essential role of livestock grazing on federal lands and its importance to rural America.”
Idaho Congressman Raul Labrador, who is a member of the committee and subcommittee, did not attend the event; he spent Thursday at the House Judiciary Committee’s hearing involving FBI agent Peter Strzok. Labrador lost to Little in the May 15 Republican gubernatorial primary. He was one of five Republicans who missed Thursday’s hearing.
Only two of the subcommittee’s nine Democrats bothered to attend the highly partisan meeting, which served primarily as an opportunity for Republicans to bash environmental groups who fund their organizations by suing federal land management agencies.
Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., who is chairman of the subcommittee, said these frequent lawsuits “have become a business, a racket,” and foster a policy of “benign neglect” as land management practices grind to a halt.
“We’ve seen the damage this policy has done to our national forests,” he said. “Now we’re seeing this same destructive ideology being turned against our rangelands.”
In his written testimony, Little, who is a third-generation sheep and cattle rancher, urged the subcommittee “to address the burdensome regulatory environment that threatens our way of life.”
“Ranchers are indispensable to the successful management of our public lands,” he said. “Unlike government administrators, who are only there for a few years, ranchers have been on the land for generations. If they’re regulated off, our country loses its most effective and efficient public lands managers.”
The two Democrats who attended the hearing, Reps. Niki Tsongas of Massachusetts and Ruben Gallego of Arizona, noted that the low grazing fees charged by the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service cost taxpayers millions of dollars each year.
“In 2016, the BLM and Forest Service spent $135.9 million managing these lands, and collected $26.5 million in grazing fees,” Tsongas said. “That’s a loss of $109.4 million to the American taxpayer.”
Erik Molvar, executive director of the Western Watersheds Project, suggested that livestock grazing was a primary cause of environmental damage on western public lands.
It’s “a slow, invisible cancer that’s insidiously and inexorably killing native ecosystems over a vast area,” he said.
Unlike bison, elk or deer, Molvar said, cattle aren’t well adapted to the West’s arid landscape. They tend to congregate along streams and rivers, damaging critical riparian areas. Besides polluting waterways and contributing to higher rates of erosion, he said, they pave the way for invasive species, such as cheatgrass.
He also noted that grazing leases on private lands can be as much as 14 times what the BLM and Forest Service charge, and said there were nearly 22,000 public lands grazing permit holders in 2015. Collectively, they grazed about 1.75 million head of cattle, which is less than 2 percent of the national herd.
“Why are we so vastly subsidizing these 22,000 ranching families, who produce 1.9 percent of American beef, at the cost of all these land health problems?” Molvar asked. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
Dave Naugle, a wildlife biology professor at the University of Montana who has spent his career studying the impacts of grazing, said ranchers actually have a critical role in preserving native habitats — particularly on species like the greater sage grouse.
“Keeping ranching productive, profitable and sustainable is a top priority for conserving the rural way of life and wildlife populations,” he said.
Naugle cited two new studies by the University of Idaho and Montana State University that found higher survival rates for sage-grouse nests in grazed lands versus idle pastures, and that grazing resulted in greater availability of insects that the chicks used as food.
The real threats to sage grouse, he said, come from catastrophic wildfires, invasive species and the conversion of rangeland to higher-intensity agricultural uses.
“A single square mile of grazing land that’s converted into new cropland negatively impacts sage grouse in a landscape 12 times that size,” Naugle said. “Grazing is a compatible land use.”