There is perhaps no industry more central to the Western identity than cattle ranching. Since the region was settled by whites, grazing has served as the foundation for both a rural economy and for a set of fiercely defended cultural values that continue to the present. Proposals to alter grazing regulations to reduce the industry’s impacts on our nation’s public lands, on which the industry relies, are viewed by ranchers as a direct assault on both of these fronts.

New developments, however, are bringing conservation into livestock grazing without disrupting ongoing operations. In some cases, they are increasing productivity while allowing ranchers greater flexibility in their stewardship of the land. Three recent developments, in particular, are bringing about a new and unexpected era of innovation to the cattle industry, with the potential to shape the future of grazing on public lands:


Virtual Fence

Invented in 1837, barbed wire’s simple design, ease of manufacture, and effectiveness at keeping livestock in and predators out led to its being proclaimed in advertisements of the time as “the perfect fence”. Since then, an estimated 620,000 miles of barbed wire has been strung across the West. Nevertheless, like any infrastructure, it requires maintenance. Holes open up, posts are destroyed by fires or floods. It also has far-reaching ecological impacts. Barbed wire fragments habitat for wildlife such as deer, elk, and pronghorn, who risk injury or ensnarement during migration, and who must expend extra energy hopping fences or going around them. While “wildlife friendly” fencing (with smooth top and bottom strands that reduce risk of injury and entrapment) has been adopted in some places, the friendliest option may be no fence at all.

Virtual fence is an option that allows ranchers to adjust fencelines in real time, from the comfort of their home. The system uses an antenna base station that communicates with GPS-enabled collars around the neck of each cow. The collars give warning beeps when an animal nears the virtual border, then delivers a low-voltage electric shock if it tries to cross the threshold. The animals soon they learn where the boundary is, and because they tend to stay with the herd, few animals attempt to stray. Coverage is approximately 10-mile radius, within the service of cell towers.

Among its advantages, virtual fence is cheaper than the equivalent amount of barbed wire, and safer for wildlife. It is easily customizable, enabling ranchers to keep cattle out of areas that are traditionally difficult to fence, such as riparian habitats or sensitive cultural/archaeological sites. Software allows for detailed tracking of herd movements, visualizations of pasture usage and intensity, and better planning for forage rotations. Such tools make it quicker and easier to adapt to changing on-the ground conditions (weather, drought, utilization), more precisely target specific areas of the range, and allow for better vegetative recovery.

But virtual fence is still a new technology, and presents a learning curve for both cattle and ranchers, who may have little incentive to swap out existing barbed wire unless it is damaged beyond repair. For these reasons, virtual fence is being used on only a small fraction of Western rangelands. The system has potential, though, over time, to have substantial impact on how ranchers do business. More brands are coming out with their own systems, and with greater adoption, prices are dropping. Widespread adoption could have the added benefit of making a considerable improvement to landscape-scale habitat connectivity.


Public Lands Rule

The Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) of 1976 established the doctrine of “multiple use” on BLM lands. FLPMA is the central statute governing BLM’s management of over 245 million acres of public lands, and states that public lands should be managed to protect environmental and water resources, fish and wildlife habitat, and outdoor recreation, among other values. For decades, however, BLM has been criticized for elevating extractive uses such as mining, drilling, and grazing above and at the expense of environmental protection. New guidance issued by the Biden administration called the Public Lands Rule, finalized this month, would begin to close that gap and balance the agency’s priorities.

In a few ways, the Rule establishes conservation as “on an equal footing with other uses”.

First, it establishes a framework to ensure healthy landscapes, abundant wildlife habitat, and clean water, at a time when public lands are under unprecedented stress from climate change, wildfire, invasive species, and recreation. Designation of Areas of Critical Environmental Concern (ACECs), for example, will be prioritized.

Second, it will allow interested parties to pursue restoration on public lands, including through conservation leasing. Under a conservation lease, an entity such as a nonprofit organization could enter into an agreement with the BLM to help achieve restoration or mitigation outcomes on public lands.

Third, it broadens the use of land health standards (developed in 1995) beyond BLM’s grazing program, to include all BLM lands and program areas. The Rule would require BLM to establish goals, objectives, and success indicators to “ensure that land health standards are applied consistently and evaluated periodically, and that appropriate action is taken when land health standards are not being met.” The agency will emphasize a science-based, data-driven approach to land management decisions.

“As the nation continues to face unprecedented drought, increasing wildfires and the declining health of our landscapes, our public lands are under growing pressure,” said Interior Secretary Deb Haaland of the Rule. “It is our responsibility to use the best tools available to restore wildlife habitat, plan for smart development, and conserve the most important places for the benefit of the generations to come.”

The most vocal pushback to the Rule has been over conservation leasing, which some are concerned might threaten existing grazing leases, or reduce the amount of land available to grazing. The agency insists, however, that the Rule does not change BLM’s multiple use mandate. “Energy development, mining, grazing, timber, outdoor recreation, and other uses will continue,” they state. The Rule “does not undermine any existing valid rights or require the use of conservation leasing.” The Rule became finalized in April, but it remains to be seen the varied shapes implementation may take across BLM parcels. (Click here to read GSEP’s press release on the Public Lands Rule.)


Outcome-Based Grazing

For those who wretch at top-down mandates, another program might be more palatable. In 2017, BLM announced it was launching an innovative program that will take a collaborative approach to issuing grazing permits. Called “Outcome-Based Grazing”, the program seeks to improve management of public lands grazing by providing an increased level of adaptability for BLM and ranchers to “manage livestock in response to changing on-the-ground conditions, rather than under traditional prescriptive terms.”

Sometimes, livestock operators are constrained by generic, regimented, and slowly-adapting permit stipulations that disincentivize or prevent them from making the best possible decisions for the land, such as adjusting livestock numbers, rotation timing and duration, or more targeted grazing. Outcome-Based Grazing is different in that it is intended to 1) Emphasize conservation performance and ecological outcomes rather than process and prescription; 2) Cooperatively improve, manage and/or protect public lands within allotments; and, 3) Provide BLM managers and livestock operators the ability to make decisions based on experience, direct knowledge of local conditions, and customized objectives.

According to BLM, oversight comes from an interdisciplinary team of range specialists, biologists, hydrologists, riparian specialists, cultural resource specialists, and managers from BLM field, district, state, and headquarters offices. The process will be implemented and administered by a local BLM Authorized Officer supported by the interdisciplinary team, in partnership with permittees and with input from state agencies and interested parties.

In 2018, BLM selected 11 demonstration sites across six Western states where the Outcome-Based Grazing is being implemented. Monitoring, an important component of the program, will seek to understand progress made towards achieving allotment-specific objectives. Evaluations will consider Grass-Shrub/Assessment Inventory and Monitoring (AIM) data collection, annual habitat conditions, and vegetative trends. BLM will consider the success of the pilot projects when crafting guidance and best management practices for expansion of the program and to inform future permitting.

The experience from participants has been positive. “We all benefit from this land,” said one rancher in Plush, OR. “As producers, we try to keep the land healthy for our livestock, as well as everyone else that enjoys it.” Permittees credit the increased flexibility of the program with allowing them to do exactly that.

Closer communication between BLM and permittees has the added benefit of stronger partnerships and improved social outcomes, including increased trust and lowering the temperature on this fraught issue. For all these reasons, Kathryn Dyer, BLM National Outcome-Based Grazing Project Lead, calls the program a “game-changer” for public lands grazing. BLM’s goal is to build a national program that is accessible to anyone with a permit.

Kevin Berend, Conservation Programs Manager

[Image credit: Bureau of Land Management]


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