Implementation of Grazing Rules for Federal Land Frozen

June 8, 2007 | Roger McEowen

The Taylor Grazing Act (TGA) of 1934 regulates grazing on federal land under the control of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). In early 1995, the Interior Department proposed new regulations. Those regulations were challenged in court by a group of cattle industry organizations as being in violation of the TGA. In 1996, the Wyoming federal district court set aside a major portion of the regulations. On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit rendered a mixed opinion - upholding part of the regulations and holding other parts invalid. The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed. By mid-2002, however, the BLM had developed a list of proposed changes to the 1995 regulations. The proposals, which were to become effective in August of 2006, would allow ranchers to share in ownership of fencing, water wells and other range improvements. The federal government has traditionally been the sole owner of those items. In addition, the proposed rules would no longer require BLM to consult with the public before renewing grazing permits or changing the boundaries of grazing allotments, and BLM would have less power to sanction ranchers for grazing violations. The proposed rules also allow ranchers to remove cattle from allotments for as long as desired, rather than triggering loss of a grazing permit upon three years of non-use.

The proposed rules were challenged by an environmental group, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) (the federal agency charged with protecting endangered species) chimed in that the proposals would “fundamentally change the way BLM lands are managed,” and “could have profound impacts on wildlife resources.”  In addition, USFWS pointed out that the BLM failed to consult with the USFWS before proposing the regulations in accordance with the Endangered Species Act. Just before the rules were to go into effect, a federal court enjoined implementation of the rules on the basis that it was likely that the plaintiff was likely to prevail on its claim that the BLM violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) by improperly minimizing the detrimental effects of limiting public input, and by excluding a report of BLM experts critical of the modifications to the regulations.   

Upon further review, the Federal District Court for the District of Idaho has now frozen the proposed regulations. The court noted that the BLM had caved-in to pressure from the livestock industry to loosen the rules. As a result of the BLM’s haste to implement the new rules, the court held that the BLM had violated NEPA and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act. The BLM justified the regulatory changes as making grazing rules more efficient, but the court noted that BLM was not the originator of the new rules. Instead, the court noted that the livestock industry (particularly the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association) had first proposed the rules. As a result of the court’s most recent decision, the new rules will not take effect until the BLM consults with the USFWS and examines the potential environmental impacts of the proposed rules. Western Watersheds Project v. Kraayenbrink, et al., No. CV-05-297-E-BLW, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 41973 (D. Idaho Jun. 8, 2007).