Little testifies on grazing policy

Idaho Lt. Gov. Brad Little speaks before the House Committee on Natural Resources on Thursday during a hearing on “The Essential Role of Livestock Grazing on Federal Lands and Its Importance to Rural America.” Screenshot / House Committee on Natural Resources

Lt. Gov. Brad Little was among a set of four witnesses who appeared Thursday before a House subcommittee which held an oversight hearing on public lands grazing.

Republicans on the House Natural Resources Committee have in recent months been moving toward significant changes to the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and the Equal Access to Justice Act, which allows groups who successfully prove in court that federal agencies violated federal rules to recover attorney fees.

Rep. Tom McClintock of California, the Republican chairman ofthe Subcommittee on Federal Lands, blasted environmental groups who file such suits as “a racket,” saying federal land management had slowed to a snail’s pace due to “endless, frivolous lawsuits filed by serial litigants.”

In her opening remarks the ranking Democrat, Rep. Niki Tsongas of Massachusetts, advocated proposed legislation that would allow private groups to pay ranchers to retire their grazing permits, reducing the long-term amount of grazing on public lands. She pointed out that the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service have set grazing fees so low that they don’t come close to the cost of grazing management activities the federal agencies perform — in 2016, agencies collected about $27 million in fees but spent about $136 million on grazing management.

“Ranchers on federal lands pay a rate that is substantially lower than state and private fees,” she added, noting that public lands ranchers pay $1.41 per animal unit month on public lands compared to rates up to $21 per month for private or state-owned rangeland. An animal unit month is the amount of grazing required to support a cow-calf pair, a horse or five sheep or goats for a month.

Little, the first witness introduced to the committee, put his support behind an overhaul of the Endangered Species Act drafted by Republican Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming. Barrasso’s bill would give state management agencies a greater hand in managing listed species, as well as those on the brink of being listed. Conservation groups have characterized the bill as a “gutting” of the nation’s signature endangered species protection law.

Little touted efforts in Idaho to develop collaborative relations with federal management agencies through plans to protect the sage grouse. He argued rural ranching communities had to adapt to a changing world, but that public lands grazing could play an important role in land management.

“Change is inevitable,” Little said. “Adaptation and survival are optional.”

Little argued ranchers in rural areas couldn’t be replaced with seasonal workers focused on outdoor recreation.

“The backbone of those communities are those ranchers serving on the school board, serving on the hospital board,” he said.

Little also touted Idaho’s efforts to create rangeland fire protection associations, which allow ranchers to be integrated into wildland firefighting efforts. Little said ranchers can often respond more quickly to fires, allowing the response to begin before they get out of control.

Erik Molvar is executive director of the Western Watersheds Project, a group that has been heavily critical of grazing on public lands and has frequently used court actions to challenge federal grazing plans. He argued that excessive grazing increases the risk of wildfire, in addition to eroding stream banks and creating other environmental damage to public lands.

“You don’t have enough grass left for the grass to provide from year to year,” he said, adding that this may contribute to the spread of invasive cheatgrass. When cheatgrass, which grows quickly and early and dries out early in the season, takes over, it greatly increases the likelihood that rangeland will be subject to regular catastrophic wildfires.

Dave Naugle, a wildlife biologist who is part of the Sage Grouse Initiative, testified that emerging studies show carefully managed grazing can have a positive impact on sage grouse populations by increasing insect populations available for chicks. He also testified that it can reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires by decreasing the amount of grass between sagebrush plants, which he said plays a key role in allowing rangeland fires to spread.

Rep. Raúl Labrador, a member of the committee who lost a gubernatorial primary to Little, wasn’t present at the hearing.

Reporter Bryan Clark can be reached at 208-542-6751.