Horse News

A new map shows rangeland health nationwide


Searchable BLM reports and satellite images for 20,000 grazing allotments.

by Tay Wiles

When the Bureau of Land Management ordered the removal of cattle from public rangeland this summer near Battle Mountain, Nevada, the state was in its third year of severe drought. Conditions were too dry to sustain the number of cattle that were grazing there, the BLM contended. Locals responded in part by announcing a “Cowboy Express” ride from Bodega Bay, California to Washington, DC to protest federal overreach and to demand that local District Manager Doug Furtado be ousted.

Disagreements like the one in Battle Mountain are hardly novel in Western politics. But this week, a new tool to understand livestock impact on public lands was thrown into the mix. Washington, DC-based non-profit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) released an interactive map that collates over 45,000 BLM records that diagnose 20,000 allotments across the nation. The map is seven years in the making, the result of Freedom of Information Act requests PEER and Western Watersheds Project put to the BLM.

Damage to the land from livestock can be seen in satellite images.

According to the map, 29 percent of allotted land, or 16 percent of the number of allotments, has failed to meet BLM standards of rangeland health due to impacts of livestock. Those assessments are based on a specific set of criteria, including things like watershed conditions, water quality, soil health and habitat for at-risk species.



Shaded areas indicate where rangeland has failed to meet BLM health standards between 1997 and 2013.

In addition to looking at the macro-scale numbers of how much land has passed the BLM health test, the new map shows satellite images of each individual allotment—a way to “sky truth,” as PEER puts it, what the agency is reporting. So, if the BLM says a piece of land is doing just fine, or if the BLM claims the landscape is taking a beating, anyone can zoom in to look for themselves and get details like the number of cattle on how many acres. Soil and vegetation disturbances from mining, agriculture, livestock or off-road vehicles are visible in the satellite images. A group of allotments in eastern Montana, for instance, are categorized as healthy, but are also clearly being used to grow crops. And they’re sitting in prime habitat for Greater sage grouse—a species that U.S. Fish & Wildlife is currently considering listing as endangered. (There’s an optional map layer that allows you to overlay grouse habitat.) PEER Advocacy Director Kirsten Stade says examples like this raise the question of how an area dedicated to crops or livestock could be considered “meeting all standards,” when the majority of native vegetation has been supplanted.



In some cases, the map shows a whole bunch of unhealthy, red-tinted, allotments butting against green-tinted, healthy ones. That kind of scenario may be an indication that adjacent district offices are interpreting rangeland health differently and calling “healthy” what the manager next door may deem “unhealthy” or vice versa, even though they’re in the same ecosystem with similar needs. In the case of Argenta, where the cowboy express came from, the fact that the allotment in question (which itself appears to have an incomplete assessment and tinted grey) is surrounded by either red or un-assessed land “suggests that maybe Doug Furtado wasn’t so far off in his call that grazing needed to be reduced on this allotment,” Stade said.

The Argenta allotment is highlighted in blue. Red areas failed to meet BLM rangeland health standards because of livestock impacts. Yellow allotments failed for non-livestock reasons, and orange allotments failed for unknown reasons. Grey areas have either no or incomplete assessments, according to PEER’s data.

For its part, the BLM responded to an initial PEER report from 2012 with qualms about the non-profit’s methodology. In any given unhealthy allotment, there may be a number of acres that are actually healthy, despite the fact the parcel on the whole is deemed a failure. But the non-profit was grouping all acres as unhealthy, which the BLM said skewed the data to be worse than it actually was. The BLM website says that the agency is creating its own mapping system that will show rangeland health acre-by-acre, instead of by allotment.

The agency also says it has “taken action to correct grazing management on 86 percent of the 1,925 allotments where livestock grazing was determined to be the cause for not meeting land health standards.”

The PEER map includes blue-tinted areas that represent Greater sage grouse habitat, underneath the tens of thousands of tinted grazing allotments.

One reason PEER is publicizing the new data set is to push the BLM to be more consistent in its rangeland health evaluations. The agency is supposed to complete assessments of each allotment every decade, but many of the allotments PEER inquired about had reports that were 15 years old or more. The project is also meant to bring information together that, until now, has been scattered throughout district field offices across the country, PEER says. Tools like this one could help the land agency take a more landscape-scale approach to management,

Blue highlights indicate where BLM rangeland health assessments mentioned oil development. The PEER map can be searched for a range of impacts to ecosystem health.


looking at full watersheds rather than just one piece at a time. And best-case scenario, these types of tools will add another layer of real information to the often emotion-driven debates around public land use in the West.

For more High Country News coverage of public lands debates, see our recent investigation, Defuse the West, which looks at threats to public-land employees and confrontations with local land users.

Tay Wiles is the online editor at High Country News.  Homepage photo of the Argenta allotment in Nevada courtesy Western Watersheds Project.

16 replies »

  1. The Mustangs if for no other reason (and we know there are literally thousands) are needed back on the Range to again florish the LAND !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


  2. According to the Cato Institute, in 1982 the law requiring fees collected by BLM managers changed from being reported and turned in to a centralized fund to a systems that allows employees to keep at least half of the fees they collect for grazing. There is not such a system for energy or mining.

    1982 is the year that the IUCN took President Carter’s May 1977 E.O. 11987, the Exotic Organisms Act, to draft into international law. This change would have increased the incentive to allow many more paying cattle and fewer horses as well. But when compared to the profit some BLM employees made through the sale of wild horses for slaughter (1997 White Paper “In the Slick of the Night’) it’s hard to tell which way they made out better.

    Multi-species grazing is used by farmers and ranchers on private land because the species do not eat the same forage. They are anatomically and physiologically adapted to eat different species of forage.

    A pipeline could bring much more water to Nevada and areas in the West from Lake Michigan that is storing more water than it needs. Once built, the pipeline could be turned on or off as needed. This would make a real difference for people in Nevada and wildlife.


    • HH, just to clarify, are you saying in 1982 it became legal for half the BLM grazing fees to be given to employees for their personal use, or were they collected and kept, say, in a local district for use rather than being added to a national pool? Though the fees are low, the millions of animals involved would amount to a chunk of change.


      • The piece I read was talking about the need to give employees incentive for collecting the fees, and the implication was that they could keep half for their personal use. Amazing what you can find in some of these old documents. I think this may have been related to the fact that someone knew that this might incentivize the BLM employees to favor cattle over horses.


    • HH – I agree regarding the pipeline – look at the amount of rain we in the East have had – seems a better use for any pipeline would be a pipe bringing WATER to the areas that are so dry. Yet all we hear about is the “need” for more gas & oil pipelines! Seems there is no interest in transferring water from where there’s too much to where there is too little. Now the farmers in California (probably other places) are drilling much deeper wells & using the water stored deep in the earth. So the question is: what happens when we use that up? I remember we used to ask that question about oil & gas, but seems to me, water is most important!


  3. Debbie, Forgive me. I should have recognized that this is your work. Great job.

    One thing advocates could do is support the changes the House passed to the Endangered Species Act that require more scientific transparency. Had there been scientific transparency when the exotic, feral, non-native, alien, invasive horse designation worked its way into regulations through international treaty and the National Invasive Species Management Plan, it is possible that we could have stopped these travesties years ago. There has never been an authentic source for listing horse or burro as an exotic species. An area the size of Alaska was used by both human and animal travelers until about 10,000 years ago to move between Alaska and Siberia and then disperse from there. Earlier land bridges crossed Greenland to western Europe and to Norther Europe.

    Therefore the entire premise of the alien, invasive species concept is essentially a scientifically void argument because the animals themselves traveled across the continents.

    But I digress, had the horse and burro been openly listed as exotics, the lack of an authentic source should have ended it right there. Listing the horse, of all species, exposes this premise as the ideological one that it is. What should concern policy makers given the importance of this species to almost everyone but the FWS, IUCN, TNC is that the insistence on refusing to acknowledge it as a native species exposes all the other scientific paradigms of which this is a part.

    Thanks again for your good work.


    • Hoofhugs, this article was written by Tay Wiles of High Country News, which includes the excellent research of PEER and Western Watersheds. I only posted it here, but, thanks for the kind words.


  4. well, does Not surprise me when the people running this department have NO Hands on knowledge or “maybe” never took an airplane ride to view this situation. Just plain “common sense” tells me the results due to weather conditions, number of cattle, and no one being compliant with the law!!!!! People in the department BLM Need to find accurate real time info & go see what is happening BEFORE 15 years of havoc occurs!!! UGH!


  5. Great Info R.T.  Thank You… The BLM etc. have NOT been doing their jobs.  Need to get out there look at land and find stats on weather, cattle numbers & common sense!!   This is just a complete grade F… The BLM & DOI Need to get with a better program!!!   They should Not be appointed in my opinion!   Bonnie Wagner  

    From: Straight from the Horse’s Heart To: Sent: Saturday, November 15, 2014 11:44 PM Subject: [New post] A new map shows rangeland health nationwide #yiv4286759041 a:hover {color:red;}#yiv4286759041 a {text-decoration:none;color:#0088cc;}#yiv4286759041 a.yiv4286759041primaryactionlink:link, #yiv4286759041 a.yiv4286759041primaryactionlink:visited {background-color:#2585B2;color:#fff;}#yiv4286759041 a.yiv4286759041primaryactionlink:hover, #yiv4286759041 a.yiv4286759041primaryactionlink:active {background-color:#11729E;color:#fff;}#yiv4286759041 | debbiecoffey posted: “SOURCE:  HIGH COUNTRY NEWSSearchable BLM reports and satellite images for 20,000 grazing Tay WilesWhen the Bureau of Land Management ordered the removal of cattle from public rangeland this summer near Battle Mountain, Nevada, the stat” | |


  6. Bottomline for me is I could careless about anything but the Freedom and protection of our Wild Mustangs, and how to achive it!!!!!! That wastes the Mustangs precious time !!!!!! Isnt this why we are here?? Have we forgotton the reason !!!!!


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