Residents at Risk: Wildlife and the Bureau of Land Management's Planning Process

By Nolen, Kelly | Environmental Law, Fall 1996 | Go to article overview

Residents at Risk: Wildlife and the Bureau of Land Management's Planning Process


Nolen, Kelly, Environmental Law


I. INTRODUCTION

We are talking about Bureau of Land Management lands. We are not talking about Forest Service. We are not talking about wilderness.... These are low production lands. These are not national parks. These are very low rainfall, low moisture content areas, so they are very unproductive.

--Senator Craig Thomas (R-Wyo.), introducing legislation to transfer Bureau of Land Management lands to the states.(1)

How important to society is this species? What is the biological significance of the species? Is it the last of its kind? Will it provide a cure for a deadly disease?

--Senator Slade Gorton (R-Wash.), introducing legislation to weaken the Endangered Species Act(2)

Times are tough for wildlife on the public domain. It is now fashionable for elected officials to attack the nation's environmental and natural resources laws. Politicians speak of restoring balance, putting people back into the equation, and curbing federal agencies that have spun out of control.(3) The new Republican majority in Washington is backing its rhetoric with action. They have introduced a host of bills designed to accomplish these goals by dramatically weakening existing environmental and natural resources laws(4) even though polls show that most Americans support current levels of environmental regulation.(5)

In this political climate, both wildlife and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) have come under fire. The "wise use" movement, which battles both federal land ownership and environmentalists, has gained visibility and clout.(6) Some federal lawmakers have followed the wise use lead and proposed legislation that will gut the Endangered Species Act(7) and transfer BLM lands to the states.(8) According to the sponsors of these bills, the pendulum that historically swung toward development and exploitation of our public land resources has now swung completely the other way, and correction is necessary.(9) Unfortunately for the wildlife living on BLM lands, the pendulum actually never traveled far from the historic orientation toward consumptive resource use. These residents of the public domain have not been adequately considered in BLM's land and resource planning process, and now face ever-increasing risks.

As reflected by Senator Craig Thomas's statement above, the approximately 270 million acres of land managed by BLM(10) have often been called "the lands no one wanted."(11) BLM lands went unclaimed during the federal government's disposition of the public domain and unreserved by the government for any special purpose,(12) and many viewed them as a vast arid wasteland of little use to anyone.(13) However, the public lands overseen by BLM are in fact incredibly diverse, encompassing grasslands, forests, high mountains, arctic tundra, and deserts.(14) Far from being unwanted, these lands are used today by numerous groups for many different purposes. Ranchers, hardrock miners, oil and gas companies, timber interests, and recreational users all seek their piece of the public lands pie and often disagree over the proper allocation of resources on BLM lands.

The wildlife residing on BLM lands form a user group whose interests have historically been ignored. Over three thousand species of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians depend on the public lands for their last strongholds of habitat.(15) At least 216 of these are listed as threatened or endangered species under the Endangered Species Act,(16) with several hundred additional species being considered for listing.(17) Human activities on the public lands, including both consumptive and nonconsumptive uses, often disturb or destroy the habitat on which these species rely and leave future prospects for survival uncertain.(18) Because the best way to ensure healthy wildlife populations is to protect and restore prime habitat, species preservation requires effective land use planning and management.(19) BLM's management of wildlife habitat on the public domain, which comprises approximately one-eighth of the land in the United States, clearly has a significant impact on the nation's wildlife. …

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