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Guest Opinions

Rangeland Health Assessment Program and the Need to Continue to Collect Data

Written by Chris Wichmann

In 2010, the Rangeland Health Assessment Program (RHAP) was conceived through the legislature. The legislature, along with many agriculture producer groups, realized that livestock grazing allotments throughout Wyoming were in jeopardy due to the lack of information or quantifiable data on grazing allotments and grazing management practices. Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) were beginning to protest, appeal and sue permit renewal decisions because of perceived impacts caused by livestock grazing. The premise of RHAP was to collect rangeland health data to provide quantifiable and defensible data for permittees and federal land managers to use in livestock grazing permit renewals and National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) documents.

Fast forward six years and RHAP is still running strong and – sadly – is still needed to provide defensible data and help with directing grazing management on federal lands. Over the past six years, RHAP has funded approximately 45 projects throughout Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and Forest Service lands in Wyoming. Through cooperation with local governments, permittees, private landowners, state lands and federal land managers, the program has enrolled almost 4 million acres of land into this rangeland monitoring program.

The program has ultimately improved communication between permittees and land managers, created cooperation and joint cooperative monitoring efforts and more importantly developed long-term monitoring plans for all the allotments enrolled. In addition, it has provided valuable, quantifiable data for the allotments that have assisted in livestock grazing permit renewals and have directly thwarted NGO claims against various allotment.

The program started in 2010 but was not fully funded until 2011. The program has grown from $200,000 for the fiscal year (FY) 2011 and FY 2013 budgets to $300,000 in the FY 2015 and FY 2017 biennial budgets. This will provide funding for an additional 15 to 20 projects over the next two years and continue to collect valuable information for our permittees and land managers to use for on the ground management decisions.

Grazing is under attack, and the sad reality is that we still need such programs to continue to protect livestock grazing in the state. As long as the federal agencies are unable to monitor their lands adequately and certain NGO groups continue to wage war on livestock grazing based on opinion rather than facts, the demand and value for real rangeland data that RHAP provides will not go away.

Rangeland data is still the key to continuing livestock grazing on public lands, because it provides a solid defense. Collected rangeland data is quantifiable and defensible for land managers. It tells a story and documents the history of the allotments, as well as answers important resource questions and identifies impacts of management practices.

And now, the importance of monitoring and having rangeland data has grown significantly with the signing of the BLM and Forest Service’s Land Use Plan Amendments for Sage Grouse. These plans will only increase the demand for monitoring and data collection. If the range staff were unable to meet current monitoring demands previously, it must appear impossible to accomplish all the additional monitoring required in the new sage grouse plans.

The Record of Decision for the plans basically identifies several areas where rangeland and rangeland health data is needed for livestock grazing. Data will be required for all of the following – in determining the priority list of allotments for renewal and consideration for sage grouse conservation objectives; for assessments of range conditions for sage grouse habitats in the Habitat Assessment Framework; for determining whether land health standards are being met; for adjusting the conservation objectives/desired conditions table to the suitability and capability of the site; for determining causal factors if a site does not meet a standard; for determining if thresholds and responses are being met or acceptable for the area; and finally, for monitoring and evaluating any adjustments or changes in management.

In my mind this is just the beginning, and everyone needs to make sure the federal land management agencies have the necessary data to justify any changes or additions to their livestock grazing permits.

I do not see the demand for good quantifiable and defensible data going away in the foreseeable future. If anything, the need will continue to grow. That is where the RHAP program can again be utilized. The program is flexible enough to continue the type of rangeland health monitoring we have done for the past six years, but I feel RHAP can also assist our permittees and the federal land management agencies in the daunting task of sage grouse required monitoring. Again, the intent of RHAP is to cooperatively monitor the rangelands and allotments to acquire quantifiable and defensible data to assist in the permit renewal process. The RHAP program still applies to this situation.

Monitoring is required in the sage grouse plans and must be a priority for our livestock producers on public lands. Rangeland monitoring is no longer a novel idea that should be considered but a sad reality that must occur in order to maintain livestock grazing on public lands.

The demand for data continues.