GAO report looks at unauthorized grazing on federal landsWritten by Saige Albert
Washington, D.C. – A 69-page report released on July 7 by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) looked at the “frequency and extent of unauthorized grazing on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and U.S. Forest Service lands (USFS)” over the last five years. The report found 1,500 recorded incidents of unauthorized grazing in the past five years on federal lands.
The report was compiled at the direction of Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the ranking member of the House Committee on Natural Resources.
Inside the report
The GAO report said, “The frequency and extent of unauthorized grazing on BLM and USFS lands are largely unknown because, according to agency officials, the agencies prefer to handle most incidents informally, such as with a telephone call, and do not record them.”
The report noted that informal handling of trespassing incidents is common because “in part, they do not consider it a priority.”
However, GAO also comments that the practice of handling trespass informally is not provided for in agency regulations, and regulations do not provide flexibility to resolve incidents without a written notice.
Additionally, the report addressed “perceived lost revenue that would otherwise be incurred through these unreported ‘incidents,’ and calls out the USFS penalty formula as insufficient to act as a true deterrent,” according to the Public Lands Council.
In their summary, GAO says that several solutions are possible, included amending regulations, establishing new procedures or changing their practices to comply with the existing regulations.
GAO made six recommendations in their report, which agencies generally agreed with.
The first recommendation was to amend regulations on unauthorized grazing use to establish procedures for information resolution of violations or to follow existing regulations by sending a notice for each potential violation.
Secondly, “To improve the effectiveness of BLM’s efforts to track and deter unauthorized grazing, the Secretary of the Interior should direct the Director of BLM to record all incidents of unauthorized grazing, including those resolved informally,” says the report.
GAO also noted that the agency’s handbook, Unauthorized Grazing Use, should be revised to coincide with regulations.
Related to USFS, GAO recommended amending regulations or direction to follow existing regulations related to unauthorized grazing.
Secondly, all USFS incidents of unauthorized grazing should be recorded, even those resolved informally.
Finally, GAO recommended, “To improve the effectiveness of the Forest Service’s efforts to track and deter unauthorized grazing, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Chief of the Forest Service to adopt an unauthorized grazing penalty structure that is based, similar to BLM’s, on the current commercial value of forage.”
Incidence of trespass
Dick Loper of the Wyoming State Grazing Board commented, “Yes, we have ranchers in Wyoming who have been trespassed by BLM and USFS. It’s not a common thing, but it does happen more often than reported by BLM.”
While trespass happens on federal lands in Wyoming, Loper said that most trespass incidents are not willful trespass.
“Some trespasses are ‘willful’ because ranchers know BLM isn’t very good about counting cow numbers, and they aren’t out on the range to check things like they used to be,” Loper said, adding, “Most trespass cases are ‘unauthorized location’ issues, not ‘more numbers of livestock on the BLM than are authorized on the permit’ issues.”
Loper further continued that many incidents of trespass occur when livestock move out of the areas that they are supposed to be as a result of the public leaving gates open.
“It is technically a trespass, but this type of trespass is not the direct fault of the rancher,” he said. “We appreciate when BLM recognizes that it isn’t the rancher’s fault and calls the rancher to request they get livestock back where they belong.”
“As a result of this report, the BLM and USFS will likely start to do a better job of documenting situations of livestock ‘trespass’ in the files,” Loper said. “Permittees should insist that when someone receives a notice of trespass in the future, the documents and file information on the situation contain the reasons for the trespass. For instance, if the trespass was caused by gates left open by hunters/recreationists or ‘unknown parties,’ permittees should insist that those reasons which were not the fault of the permittee be contained in the file.”
He also noted that the critical attitude of GAO toward informal resolution of trespass situations means likely changes for producers.
Loper continues, “The federal agencies may not use this ‘informal’ process as much as they currently do in the future so it is good business to be more vigilant as to the location of livestock on federal lands in the future.”