Ranchers, livestock lobby have a wish list for Trump's first 100 days

Cattle grazing on federal lands near Canyonlands National Park, Utah
Adventure_Photo | Getty Images

Western ranchers and the livestock industry are looking for President-elect Donald Trump to quickly reverse water rules and ease other federal land policies, and have already drafted a "priorities" list.

The livestock lobby wants repeal on certain national monument designations in the West and rollbacks of environmental rules now designed to protect a bird known as the sage-grouse. Some of the changes sought also would benefit the mining and oil industries.

"We're hoping to maybe reset some of the rules and regulations that have been put in place in relation to our public lands," said Dave Eliason, president of the Public Lands Council, a sister group of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.

But environmental groups vow to fight some of the changes, and some expressed concern that the new Justice Department may not defend the government's existing rules in court.

About 40 percent of the Western cow herd and about half of the nation's sheep herd are grazed on federal lands, according to the Public Lands Council. Overall, there are around 640 million acres of federal lands, including about 245 million acres managed by the Bureau of Land Management.

A common theme of the federal government in the case of federal land management decision-making is eliminating the voice of local communities, which in the West often means ranchers
Ethan Lane
executive director of the Public Lands Council

Eliason, a Utah rancher, said small communities in the West rely on the public lands for their livelihoods because there is so little private land for grazing. "The restrictions are becoming very, very strong," he said.

In some Western states, such as Nevada, Idaho and Utah, more than 60 percent of the land is federally owned. The BLM manages not only surface land for grazing and other use but for mineral resources.

"We think almost everything [President Barack Obama] did will be challenged," said Athan Manuel, director of the lands protection program for the Sierra Club, an environmental group. "Some of them will be harder to undo than I think advocates think; some will be easier to stop."

Indeed, the rancher and cattlemen's lobby is calling for the Trump administration in its first 100 days to bring an immediate halt to rules meant to protect the sage-grouse's habitat as well as the withdrawal of the Environmental Protection Agency's Waters of the United States rule, which it sees as an example of "extreme overreach by the government."

"A common theme of the federal government in the case of federal land management decision-making is eliminating the voice of local communities, which in the West often means ranchers," said Ethan Lane, executive director of the Public Lands Council. Lane also serves as executive director of federal lands for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, the largest and oldest national association of cattle producers.

The Sierra Club calls the sage-grouse agreement that the BLM put in place about two years ago "a real bipartisan agreement" that was between the Obama administration and several Western governors, including two Republicans. "That wouldn't take an act of Congress to undo," said Manuel.

Ultimately, the sage-grouse protections limit the use of some federal lands for grazing as well as mining and oil extraction. Almost a dozen states have lands that could fall under the habitat rules protecting the sage-grouse, which eats mainly sagebrush.

Male sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) struts in mating display.
Danita Delimont | Getty Images

"They may try to undo them, but legally they have to justify that with science and facts — and if they don't they're subject to litigation," said Sharon Buccino, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's land and wildlife program.

She also said it's unclear how Trump's Justice Department would act on lawsuits involving issues such as public lands and waters.

"Will they, as they should, continue to aggressively defend the actions the government took, or under new leadership will they not really continue to do what is their job?" she said. "You're going to have the environmental community, NRDC and others intervening to ensure the law is followed and those actions are defended."

On the water regulations, the Sierra Club is expecting more efforts by the states to chip away authority from the federal government on water policies. "That will be harder for us to stop, because, I think, a lot of that is executive action," Manuel said.

Several lawsuits have been filed against the U.S. government over the water rule, which broadened protections beyond "navigable waters" to include "adjacent waters" such as streams, creeks and wetlands. A federal court has put the rule on hold due to the ongoing litigation.

Among those who sued the EPA over the rule is Scott Pruitt, Oklahoma attorney general and President-elect Trump's pick to head the agency. In announcing the lawsuit in 2015, Pruitt said the rule would mean "farmers, ranchers, developers, industry and individual property owners will now be subject to the unpredictable, unsound and often byzantine regulatory regime of the EPA."

Meantime, Trump's pick to become Interior secretary — who has oversight over the Bureau of Land Management — is Rep. Ryan Zinke of Montana. The one-term GOP congressman is a Navy SEAL veteran with an undergraduate degree in geology and sits on natural resources and armed services committees.

According to Lane, Zinke and the other Trump team selections "signal a group that's interested in correcting some of the overreach we've seen over the last eight years and charting a course that will allow for a refocus on multiple use, which is really ... what these agencies were chartered to do. It's critical to getting that balance restored in the West."

Lane was asked if his group had met with the Trump transition staff, to which he responded, "We've obviously been trying to keep them up to speed on our priorities where those opportunities have been available."

Finally, another area the ranch and livestock industry wants change or repeal is in what it terms "abuse of the Antiquities Act," a 1906 law passed by Congress that gives the president the authority to create national monuments from public lands or to protect historic or prehistoric structures.

The Antiquities Act was recently used by Obama to declare two new national monuments in the West — Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah and Gold Butte National Monument in southeastern Nevada.

Utah rancher Eliason calls the monument designation "pretty destructive to the livestock and multiple use concept."