The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) are the two primary federal land management agencies that administer lands grazed by livestock in the western U.S.

Baker sarah
Associate Professor / Livestock Extension Educator / University of Idaho Extension in Custer County

The BLM, which administers about 245 million acres of public lands, manages livestock grazing on 157 million acres of those lands as guided by federal law.

Further, livestock grazing is permitted on over 81 million acres of national forest lands spread across 28 states. Grazing use on these lands is administered through a grazing permit system.

The government of the U.S. is directly responsible for managing 29 percent of the nation’s land area.

Most Western states have a high percentage of federal lands. Ranking in order are: Nevada (83.1 percent), Utah (64.5 percent), Idaho (63.8 percent), Alaska (62.7 percent), Oregon (52.6 percent), Wyoming (49.9 percent), Arizona (45.4 percent), California (44.9 percent), Colorado (36.2 percent), New Mexico (34.2 percent), Washington (28.5 percent) and Montana (28.0 percent).


Livestock grazing, which was one of the earliest uses of rangelands when the West was settled, continues to be an important use of those same lands today.

Managed grazing on public lands provides numerous environmental benefits.

Grazing can be used to change vegetation, including decreasing invasive species and reducing fuel loads that can lead to catastrophic wildfires.

Besides providing traditional products such as meat and fiber, rangelands and associated private ranch lands support healthy watersheds, wildlife habitat and numerous recreational opportunities.

Livestock grazing on public lands helps maintain the private ranches that, in turn, preserve the open spaces that we enjoy today.

However, livestock grazing now competes with more uses than it did in the past, as other industries and the general public look to public lands as sources of both conventional and renewable energy and as places for outdoor recreational opportunities.

Some of the key issues that face public land managers today are global climate change, severe wildfires, invasive plant species, dramatic population increases, endangered species protection
and litigation.

Legal mandates relating to grazing on public lands

Many laws apply to the management of grazing on public lands. Some of these include the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1969, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973, the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 and the Public Rangelands Improvement Act of 1978.

Endangered Species Act (ESA)

The Endangered Species Act is a broad and powerful law designed to provide protection for threatened and endangered (T&E) species and their habitats.

A species is considered endangered if it is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range. A species is considered threatened if it is likely to become endangered in the future. Congress passed the act on Dec. 28, 1973.

Nearly 2,000 species are listed under the ESA. Of these, approximately 1,300 are found in part or entirely in the U.S. and its waters – the remainder are foreign species.

This article will use four common T&E fish species that occur on and adjacent to many BLM and USFS lands in the West: bull trout (threatened), steelhead (threatened), chinook salmon (threatened) and sockeye salmon (endangered).

The ESA identifies two regulatory agencies responsible for implementing the act: The U.S. Department of the Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency’s (NOAA) National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), often referred to as NOAA Fisheries. These two agencies are often referred to as the “Services.”

They are regulatory agencies because the ESA empowers them to design implementation procedures by following formal rule-making processes that result in administrative law codified in federal regulations.

The NMFS manages marine and anadromous species (species that live their adult lives in the ocean but move into freshwater streams to reproduce or spawn).

NMFS has jurisdiction over 67 listed species, including chinook salmon and steelhead. The FWS is responsible for plants, land and freshwater species. FWS has jurisdiction over the remainder of the listed species, including bull trout.

When action agencies (or land management agencies as they are called), such as the USFS and the BLM, propose projects and activities in the vicinity of protected species, the Services are required to provide biological opinions (BO) about “jeopardy” (i.e., risk of extinction) and to ensure that such proposals do not adversely modify designated critical habitat.

The process by which these BOs are developed is called “consultation,” which is covered in Section 7 of the ESA.

Next month I will discuss Section 7 of the ESA, review the consultation process and give you tips on how to become involved through the applicant status process.

This information can help achieve common-sense solutions to help lessen and avoid conflicts and frustrations that come with grazing management on public lands.  end_mark


A rancher brings off a herd from a U.S. Forest Service allotment near Macro Creek, Idaho. The USFS oversees livestock grazing permits usable on 81 million acres of public lands across 28 states.
Photo courtesy of University of Idaho Extension.

sarah baker

Sarah Baker

Extension Educator
University of Idaho