A House Natural Resources subcommittee held an oversight hearing Thursday in which experts argued for and against livestock grazing on federal lands and reviewed the role of ranchers in regulating the practice.

One of the four witnesses, Idaho’s Republican Lieutenant Governor Brad Little, told the lawmakers that ranchers with grazing permits “are an integral part of the West today,” adding that regulatory reform out of Washington “plays a critical role in determining … whether or not our children and grandchildren will continue to be a part of our great public lands in the West.”

Another witness, University of Montana Professor Dave Naugle, said ranchers need to have a voice in that regulation. He said they have played a hand in fighting threats to ranching and wildlife on federal lands by “reducing wildfire frequency and severity, restoring watersheds at risk of cheat-grass invasion, and removing invading juniper trees.” East of the Rockies, he said, ranchers have “addressed subdivision, energy extraction and cropland conversions that have threatened to fragment large and intact (federal) grazing lands.”

Erik Molvar, executive director of the Western Watersheds Project, disagreed, arguing that livestock grazing promotes the growth of cheat grass, which he said increases wildfire risk, causes stream temperatures to rise and depletes fish populations.

“Cattle were evolved in the boggy forests of northern Europe and are ill-suited and maladapted to the … rangelands that you find in our Western states,” Molvar said. “They hang out in stream sides … and heavily graze the vegetation along stream sides, and wallow in the streams themselves … They trample the nests of salmon, steelhead and trout, and kill the eggs.”

Arizona Farm Bureau President Stefanie Smallhouse said the public-private partnership of Western cattle ranching has many benefits for public lands, including providing a large workforce to manage and care for the public lands without added expense to the taxpayer, and it provides a boost to rural economies.

Over more than a century, “we have actually decreased our footprint, while increasing water sources, forage and open space,” the sixth-generation farmer said. “Ranchers invest in these lands, we maintain the improvements for everyone’s use and are critical in preventing catastrophic wildfires. The partnership is critical in providing our citizens with an affordable and well-balanced diet.”

Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif, the chairman of the Federal Lands Subcommittee, expressed his concern about “well-organized groups” who are attacking worthwhile federal regulations with “sue, settle and award” business model.

Attacks by these groups, he said, “are creating a paralyzing environment in which sound scientific land management decisions are abandoned both by our ranchers and public land managers for fear of endless frivolous lawsuits filed by serial litigants.”

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