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Guest Opinions

Rangeland Monitoring Data Collected by Outside Source Cooperators

Written by Jim Cagney
    Public collection of range monitoring data is a developing issue in the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) range program. It is undeniable that the BLM needs additional monitoring data. Every grazing permit we authorize must be analyzed in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act, and issued with a decision the public can appeal. We need information to defend our decisions. However, the scope of the Wyoming range program makes it difficult for our range mangers to generate the monitoring data necessary to fully support the volume of permit renewal decisions we issue. The Wyoming BLM manages 18,000,000 acres of public land, and issues around 380 permits a year. Consequently we’re not in a position to say no thanks to willing cooperators, and we can’t be perceived as not wanting valid information.
    The problem with relying on outside source cooperators is that rangeland monitoring lends itself to a wide range of interpretation and complexity. Simply requiring cooperators to stick to “established protocols” doesn’t address the complexity, because the issue transcends just collecting data. Let’s say for example, a rancher and I agree to limit utilization to 50 percent. The meeting ends amicably with the rancher thinking the use cap is an average for the pasture, and me thinking it’s about use levels on green needlegrass (a cow favorite) along a transect right near the best water source in the pasture. Hopefully we’d get on the same page soon, because that is a very substantive difference. But what if the rancher and I never talked about that use level distinction, and the issue was left to a cooperator who would make that determination by the way the monitoring program was designed? Clearly, that scenario must be avoided.
    Data collection is just a component of a comprehensive monitoring program. The study design and evaluation process are equally important. Furthermore, monitoring is not the starting point of an effective range program. How do we choose what to monitor? First rate goals and objectives are the foundation. On a loamy site in the Bighorn Basin, my goal might be to increase the abundance of bluebunch wheatgrass, because bluebunch has the potential to produce both the most forage for cattle and hiding cover for grouse nesting. That is a good goal, but it is not measurable. Before I can specify a measurable objective, I need to establish where and how the data will be collected and evaluated. The where, what, and how part of a monitoring program links the BLM’s land use goals with the measurable objectives in a specific allotment. This is the critical function the BLM cannot delegate to the public.
    A permittee is not required to collect monitoring data. Anyone with legal public access is free to record their observations, and free to send their findings to the BLM. However placement of infrastructure (such as utilization cages), gets to the “how and where” part of the study design. If the BLM accepts cooperator data but fails to evaluate it, does it become part of the official record anyway? Clearly we need to formally accept or decline cooperator data in a timely manner, and communicate our intent to both the cooperator and the grazing permittee.
    The BLM’s challenge is to take advantage of offers of support, and honor the concept of public participation, without abdicating our responsibility. In the near future the Wyoming BLM State Office will issue guidance to the field offices designed to assure that we steer a steady course in our efforts to work with cooperators. I need to thank Kathleen Jachowski for her critical help in sorting out these important issues.
    This editorial was reprinted from the Guardians of the Range newsletter, March 2008 issue. A related news article appears on this page. Jim Cagney is Wyoming Range Program Lead for the Bureau of Land Management.