Idaho grazing

Cattle graze in Owyhee County, Idaho. The state and the Bureau of Land Management plan to swap land in and around a wilderness area.

The Idaho Board of Land Commissioners recently approved the Owyhee Land Exchange with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

The swap, in the works for 12 years, involves ground federally designated as wilderness. BLM Jan. 20 released a Record of Decision that initiated a 45-day public-protest period and 60-day review by the Idaho governor’s office. Also Jan. 20, BLM issued an environmental assessment and a finding of no significant impact.

The state, whose land is supposed to generate income for schools, will trade nearly 24,000 acres of endowment land within the Owyhee Canyonlands Wilderness for 31,000 acres BLM owns outside wilderness boundaries.

The equal-value exchange reflects appraisals rather than acreage, according to the Idaho Department of Lands.

The state will get non-wilderness ground adjacent to existing endowment lands that have access. BLM would will increase its wilderness holdings and backcountry-recreation access.

The state plans to exchange 40 endowment parcels with 17 grazing leases for 11 federal parcels with 18 grazing permits. The state plans to honor the BLM grazing permits by issuing land-use permits for the time remaining.

The Idaho Farm Bureau Federation and Owyhee County Commission last year issued letters supporting the exchange.

“Most people I talk to favor it because it works better with their individual operation,” said Owyhee Cattlemen’s Association President Scott Bunderson. “Others are in favor of the trade but concerned with potential (BLM) grazing-preference loss in the transfer.”

Most OCA members have a mix of Idaho and BLM grazing authorizations, he said.

State leases are about twice as expensive and carry higher risk they will change hands, though the state has been “very favorable to work with,” Bunderson said.

BLM permits give the holder a renewal preference if he or she remains qualified, but the agency can reduce allowed grazing intensity on a site.

“A lot of this just cleans up a management issue for the state of Idaho and for the BLM,” he said. He expects grazing opportunities to hold steady or increase.

Idaho Conservation League Public Lands Director John Robison said the state and BLM, following the multi-stakeholder initiative that keyed wilderness designation, “recognized the existing checkerboard situation wasn’t serving the agencies’ interests as well as it could.”

Some state-owned parcels with habitat for bighorn sheep and sage grouse are remote and surrounded by rugged canyons, so they’re hard for the Department of Lands to manage for maximum long-term financial gain, he said.

While some BLM holdings are easier to manage and closer to towns, they have fewer multiple-use amenities and are better-suited to grazing.

“We don’t see increases or decreases in grazing as a problem because each agency will now be able to optimize its mission,” Robison said. “BLM will be better able to manage for both habitat for bighorn sheep and sage grouse, and manage for wilderness experiences for outfitters and members of the public while still allowing livestock grazing where it currently exists.”

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