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Public land grazing elicits some pretty damning declarations. Former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt once called livestock grazing “the most damaging use of public lands.” And conservation groups, like WildEarth Guardians, go further: “Livestock production is the most widespread and destructive activity on … western landscapes.”

And yet, little is known about permit holders authorized to graze sheep, cattle, goats, and horses on millions of acres of federal public lands in 16 states.

WildEarth Guardians, based in Sante Fe, NM, is embroiled in a protracted legal battle to obtain the names of permit holders from the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which oversees public land grazing. The battle dates back to August 2007, when WildEarth Guardians and another conservation group filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking copies of all livestock grazing permits and the names and addresses of permit holders. The BLM eventually referred them to its Rangeland Administration System, a publicly searchable database on grazing allotments. But that database does not include names and addresses of every grazing operator permitted by BLM.

Last September, the conservationists sued the BLM in federal court in Idaho for violating FOIA and, as the complaint states, “improperly withholding and failing to disclose information and documents related to … grazing permittees.”

Without names and addresses, advocates say, it’s virtually impossible to know who is using federal public lands for grazing, how many animals are involved, and on how many allotments. In short, no one can develop a profile of the typical public rancher. Yet the BLM administers a massive grazing program —18,000 permits for nearly 16,000 livestock operators using 138 million acres of public lands — that comes at a steep price.

In 2005, in fact, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that 10 federal agencies spent $144 million managing such grazing programs, yet collected only $21 million in grazing fees. Conservationists and taxpayer organizations have mocked that it costs more to feed a cat or a goldfish than the $1.35 fee per animal unit month that ranchers pay to graze livestock on our public land. Ranching interests argue that public land has been used for grazing since the birth of the United States, and that cattlemen serve as public land managers who help government agencies cut costs and preserve the open space of the West.

But potential land damage is what worries environmental advocates, who blame livestock grazing for contributing to the rapid “desertification” of the West. “It’s important to know who is involved in federal public lands grazing,” says Mark Salvo, of WildEarth Guardians, who has written about the threat to endangered species caused by the activity. “But without the entire list, it’s hard for anyone to figure out the big picture.”

A spokesman for the BLM said the bureau would not comment on pending litigation.

In its FOIA response in 2008, the BLM declined to provide permit holder names and addresses because such a disclosure, it wrote, “would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of privacy.” Last October, officials backpedaled somewhat and gave the conservationists information on 6,000 commercial permit holders, who arguably have no privacy rights. But that still leaves the identities of as many as two-thirds of the grazing permit holders in the dark. In its latest court filing, in November, the BLM claims that the personal privacy exemption covers the remaining names because they represent “family owned businesses or closely held entities.”

But conservationists aren’t buying the argument. After all, the U.S. Forest Service gave WildEarth Guardians the names and addresses of 10,000 permit holders — commercial and otherwise — authorized to graze livestock on national forest lands in response to a similar FOIA request. Besides, according to the conservationists’ lawsuit, the BLM has already handed out this information in the past to sympathetic industry groups like the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the Public Land Council. In its court filings, the BLM acknowledged that it “may have disclosed personal information about permittees to FOIA requesters” prior to 2005, when the bureau adopted new rules prohibiting disclosure of contact information for ranchers who describe themselves as small, private operations.

“They obviously have the information,” Salvo says. “They just won’t release it.”


What: Identities of livestock grazing permit holders

Where: Bureau of Land Management

Availability: Not available to public

Format: N/A

Usability: N/A

The Data Mine is a joint project of the Center for Public Integrity and the Sunlight Foundation.

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Kristen Lombardi is the Columbia Journalism Investigations editor.