Idaho Lt. Gov. Brad Little and Erik Molvar, executive director of Hailey-based Western Watersheds Project, provided contrary views last week as two of four witnesses testifying about public-lands livestock grazing before a U.S. House subcommittee in Washington, D.C.
The majority party’s stance on the subject was made clear by the title of the hearing—“The Essential Role of Livestock Grazing on Federal Land and Its Importance to Rural America”—held before the House Natural Resources Committee’s Subcommittee on Federal Lands.
Subcommittee Chairman Tom McClintock, R-Calif., opened the hearing by saying efforts to protect the rangeland have turned into a business for the environmental groups involved.
“In recent years, we’ve witnessed the rise of organizations whose business model is based on sue, settle and award, all at taxpayer expense,” he said.
McClintock did not explain how nonprofit organizations might be earning a profit, and questions on the subject emailed to his office by the Idaho Mountain Express were not answered by press deadline Tuesday.
Of the four witnesses, three—Little, Stefanie Smallhouse, president of the Arizona Farm Bureau, and David Naugle, a wildlife biology professor at the University of Montana—were invited by the majority Republicans. Molvar was invited by the Democrats.
Little, Idaho’s current lieutenant governor and Republican candidate for governor, told the subcommittee that he is former president of the Idaho Wool Growers Association.
“Ranchers are an indispensable part of successful management of public lands,” he said. “If ranching is regulated off the public lands, the most efficient and effective land managers will be lost.”
Asked by McClintock how the actions of environmental groups are undermining grazing in Idaho, Little answered, “They’re devastating, particularly when commodity prices are down, cattle and sheep prices are down. They’re very disruptive. Peoples’ bankers are not very understanding when the security of an operation, a year-round operation, is jeopardized by a permit renewal or some kind of litigation that means a rancher can’t have that year-round operation that they’ve put together for sometimes over a hundred years. It’s the instability that really creates a problem, not only for the rancher, but for the community that’s dependent upon that year-round operation.”
Little added that the Western beef industry is “dependent on that critical time period when that livestock is on the public lands. It’s that winter range, that summer range, that makes the rest of a ranch operate.”
Molvar, on the other hand, told the subcommittee that livestock grazing has devastating impacts on public land in the West. He said cattle concentrate in riparian areas, reducing shade from plants, warming the water and trampling redds of salmon, steelhead and trout. He said cattle eat native bunch grasses and trample the soil crust, a natural defense to cheatgrass, causing a conversion of large parts of the range to the exotic grass.
“Cheatgrass is the scourge of the West and is the cause of many of the wildfire problems that we see today, and livestock grazing is the single most important mediator of that,” Molvar said.
But Naugle, a science advisor to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Sage Grouse Initiative, said livestock grazing is compatible with sage grouse conservation. He said grouse populations are affected mainly by severe weather events, and studies have found little difference in nest survival between managed and unmanaged rangeland. Moreover, he said, a study at Montana State University found that periodic disturbance by grazing increases the number of insects, which are eaten by grouse chicks.
Naugle noted that grazing regulations on public land require a 7-inch grass height to hide nests from predators, but recent research has shown that sagebrush, not grass, gives cover to nests. He said the association of nest survival with taller grass was due simply to the fact that scientists had waited until later in the spring, when the chicks had left, to measure the grass around successful nests.
“With our new grass height evaluation, we found that a generation of scientists, myself included, have been measuring this the wrong way,” he said.
Naugle said the solution for declining sage grouse numbers in the Great Basin is to reduce wildfires, cheatgrass and invading junipers. He said livestock grazing slows wildfire spread by reducing fuels.
In response to a question from McClintock, Molvar said it is not Western Watersheds Project’s position that all livestock grazing be eliminated on Western public lands.
That had previously been the organization’s position, and, in fact, as of Tuesday, its website stated, “The time has come to end public lands ranching.” In an interview with the Idaho Mountain Express, Molvar said that hadn’t been the organization’s position since sometime before he became executive director, and he hadn’t realized that the statement was still on the website.
He said Western Watersheds Project does advocate that the burden of proof be on the livestock industry to show that grazing on public lands can be done without environmental harm, “and so far they’re not doing that.” He said much of the Western public lands is so arid that it probably cannot support any livestock grazing without being harmed. In areas where it is compatible, he said, federal land managers have allowed too many animals.