TWIN FALLS • Even at 94 years old, Lola Blossom has no immediate plans to retire from her Three Creek ranch.
The Idaho native holds a handful of grazing permits in the Three Creek area located in Owyhee County. And like many of her fellow ranchers, Blossom says she’s focused on maintaining business as usual.
It’s a goal that’s hard to accomplish — surrounded by environmentalists, federal officials and state regulators fighting over the best ways to manage grazing throughout the nation.
“I’ve been around before the Bureau of Land Management was formed,” she said. “They haven’t given me too much trouble and I try not to give them that much either.”
Blossom interacts with the federal agency at least once every 10 years, when the six federal permits that allow her cattle to feed on federal lands are up for renewal. That time window could now change with the introduction of two bills from Idaho lawmakers looking to extend the permits’ expiration date.
“Extending them might be alright,” Blossom said. “I can’t see how that might be a bad thing for me.”
Federal agencies like the BLM and the U.S. Forest Service oversee close to 25,000 grazing permits across the country. In south-central Idaho, the BLM manages a little more than 1,100 grazing permits in three districts that are broken into grazing allotments, according to the agency’s website.
Along with applying for a permit, livestock operators must also pay the agencies a fee. The grazing fee is $1.35 per animal-unit-month (AUM) — a measure of what one cow and her calf, one horse, or five sheep or goats eat in a month.
However, both the BLM and Forest Service are working through a backlog of permits to renew amid a rise in lawsuits and a decline in funding. Nationally, more than 4,200 BLM permits have been on the renewal list for one to three years.
Looking to expedite the process, two bills proposed by U.S. Reps. Raul Labrador and Mike Simpson, both R-Idaho, would extend permits from 10 to 20 years. The bills would also both require grazing permits to be initially renewed under existing terms and conditions until federal officials complete the full renewal process.
Like last year, Simpson hopes to push the grazing amendments through the appropriations bill funding the Interior Department and the Environmental Protection Agency for the coming fiscal year. Labrador’s bill, called the Grazing Improvement Act, is being included in the Conservation and Economic Growth Act, which includes 14 different bills.
“Our bill would help ranchers by providing a long-term solution through legislation,” said Phil Hardy, Labrador’s spokesman, in an email. “Rep. Simpson’s efforts in the Appropriations, especially in riders, is key in helping ranchers who need to know they can access public lands right now when their need is most acutely urgent.”
Extending the permit duration is part of the solution to keep grazers on the land and allow the BLM to get out of the office and back onto monitoring the land, said rancher and Sen. Bert Brackett.
By reducing the amount of money in some departments, Simpson’s bill would free up funds for the BLM to focus on monitoring grazing areas, he said.
“These bills would extend the life of the permit, it wouldn’t be up for revision as often and subsequently appeal,” he said. “That limits the chance of litigation.”
Over in the BLM’s Jarbidge Field Office, wildlife managers have issued more than 150 active grazing permits this year. In the Burley office, there are more than 550 permits and close to 480 in Shoshone.
However, that might not always be the case in the next 20 years, said Mike Boltz, a BLM rangeland specialist.
The amount of ranching operations grazing on public lands has steadily declined since the 1950s. The BLM tallied 8.3 million AUMs in 2011, compared to 18.2 million AUMs in 1954.
Litigation could be a reason for the decline. Idaho has close to 300 permits wrapped up in court cases, with almost 200 of those located in the Burley and Jarbidge areas, said Jessica Gardetto, a BLM spokeswoman out of the Boise office.
“Litigation discourages the family operators,” Botlz said. “Smaller permits are being sold or consolidated. The uncertainty is making it hard for the young people to want to take over the business.”
When Boltz first went to work for the BLM more than 30 years ago, the agency was just beginning to put grazing permits through an environmental impact review before approving them.
The BLM now renews grazing permits after running them through a federally mandated monitoring process to ensure that the rangeland remains healthy, he said.
Permits must be tailored to individual allotments because of the unique vegetation composition each pasture contains, Boltz said.
“In the 1970s, our range inventories were based on computer models that gave us complicated assumptions,” he said. “Since 1982, we’ve set limits based on observations on the impact grazing has had on one pasture. We’re still in operating under that mode today.”
However, with an increase in litigation from environmental groups concerned over the negative impacts grazing has on ecosystems and species, rangeland monitoring has become challenging, Boltz said.
“It becomes cumbersome,” he said. “Instead of monitoring an area, we end up not being able to implement anything because we’re bogged down by redoing a lot of the same paperwork.”
The Hailey-based Western Watersheds Project is one of the environmental groups that has made policing public-lands grazing a priority — concerned about what its members view as grazing’s harsh effects to the land. The group sees Simpson’s and Labrador’s bills as a result of WWP winning several key grazing disputes throughout the state. Ranchers are now looking to their lawmakers to make sure they can continue grazing, said Katie Fite, the group’s biodiversity director.
“The problem is political clout,” she said. “Ranchers have always bullied anyone who has tried to keep them accountable and now they got their lawmakers to do it for them.”
However, removing all grazing from the rangeland won’t result in pristine conditions, said Karen Launchbaugh, a range scientist with the University of Idaho.
“We have domesticated livestock for more than a hundred years, our rangeland is used to grazing and it can be a powerful took,” Launchbaugh said. “The weeds are here and god knows the wildfires are here. We have affected the ecosystems but stopping grazing won’t make it better. It can and should help reduce the risks like wildfire or invasive species.”