As people are distracted by the global pandemic, they may not realize that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in western Colorado is abandoning its wilderness protection responsibilities and choosing cows over wilderness, violating the law and ignoring its own obligations to the public. The agency has recently issued renewals of livestock grazing permits that significantly damage two federally-protected wildernesses. Conservationists have challenged both decisions as violations of the 1964 Wilderness Act, the Congressional Grazing Guidelines, and BLM’s own regulations.

In both instances, BLM has authorized motor vehicle use and motorized equipment use well beyond what is allowed by the various federal laws, guidelines and regulations, all to the detriment of the wild character of the magnificent Black Ridge Canyons Wilderness and the Powderhorn Wilderness.

Livestock grazing damages wilderness and our public lands in a number of ways — including harming water quality, spreading invasive weeds, trampling streamside riparian vegetation and displacing native wildlife. The public may think livestock grazing in federally designated wildernesses in Colorado happens rarely, but today 43% of all wilderness acres in Colorado are allotted for livestock grazing.

The 1964 Wilderness Act defines wilderness as an area where “the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” The Wilderness Act also prohibits motor vehicles and motorized equipment like chainsaws in order to protect an area’s wild character. The Wilderness Act further prohibits buildings and structures, like fences and stock tanks, as well as nearly all commercial enterprises, again to protect an area’s wildness.

The Wilderness Act does allow livestock grazing where it was established prior to an area’s designation as wilderness and subject to reasonable regulations.

In 1980, Congress detailed how livestock grazing should be administered in the Congressional Grazing Guidelines (CGGs). The CGGs allow for some very limited motorized use to facilitate livestock grazing-related activities, but only where such activities cannot “reasonably and practically be accomplished on horseback or foot” or “for emergencies such as rescuing sick animals or the placement of feed in emergency situations.”

While conservationists recognize that the Wilderness Act allowed grazing to continue under limited circumstances, ranchers must also recognize the public’s goal that these wild places be protected as wilderness and to modify their practices accordingly.

— Black Ridge Canyons Wilderness. In the first Colorado case, Western Watersheds Project and Wilderness Watch have challenged the ten-year renewal of livestock grazing on allotments found in the Black Ridge Canyons Wilderness, managed by BLM’s Grand Junction office. BLM authorized motorized access to “check on livestock to avoid or detect emergencies,” haul camp supplies to support the annual gather and place salt. Wilderness Watch monitors wildernesses all over the country and to our knowledge this is the only place motor vehicles are allowed for such routine livestock management practices. BLM refused to consider commonplace non-motorized alternatives.

— Powderhorn Wilderness. In the second case, Wilderness Watch challenged the ten-year renewal of a grazing permit in the Powderhorn Wilderness, managed by BLM’s Gunnison office. Here, BLM went so far as to allow extensive chainsaw use to cut out 15 miles of “cattle movement corridors” inside the wilderness, expand a foot trail into a road to allow motor vehicle access, authorize the use of a mini-excavator to periodically clean out a stock pond, and permit the use of Utility Transport Vehicles (UTVs) to drive into the wilderness with fencing material. BLM provided no analysis of non-motorized alternatives, such as the use of pack stock and cross-cut saws, for example, but merely rubber-stamped the rancher’s request.

Both of these Colorado examples seem to demonstrate a BLM bias against preserving wilderness character in favor of allowing ranchers easy motorized access to our precious wildernesses. While the Wilderness Act left open the opportunity to graze livestock in some wildernesses, ranchers have an obligation to do so in a way that doesn’t degrade the public’s wilderness, and BLM has a duty to make sure wilderness is protected.

Conservationists will continue to challenge BLM’s poor decisions that violate federal laws and regulations, and that degrade wildernesses for the benefit of livestock grazing. Even in the midst of the global pandemic, our treasured wildernesses deserve no less.

Kevin Proescholdt is the conservation director for Wilderness Watch, a national wilderness conservation organization at www.wildernesswatch.org.

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