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Cowboy Welfare 

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

The Federal Government just reduced its grazing fee to $1.35 an AUM for ranchers with grazing privileges on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and Forest Service lands. Grazing on other public lands According to the non-partisan Congressional Research Service is often higher as is grazing on private lands that typically runs $22.60 an AUM or more.

Furthermore, the price of grazing privileges on public lands has not kept up with inflation. The current formula for setting grazing fees was established in 1966 when the cost per AUM was $1.26. If you adjust for inflation, the minimal cost should be $9.47.

Compounding this already subsidized cost is that since 1966, the average cow and calf are considerably larger, and require more forage. As a result, an AUM or the amount of vegetation needed to sustain a cow and calf in 1966 is now considerably less, but most grazing allotments have not been adjusted to reflect these changes in the size (appetite) of cattle.

Due to failure to keep up with inflation, the price paid to graze on public lands is estimated by one 2015 study to be more than a billion dollars annually and covers only 7% of the real costs of administrating these lands.

The ranching industry claims that BLM and FS lands are not as productive as private lands; thus such comparisons are unfair. However, the fee paid for private leases is often adjacent to BLM and FS lands of similar productivity.  An even more telling comparison is that National Wildlife Refuges are not constrained by the grazing formula used for BLM and FS lands, and grazing fees on wildlife refuges are often similar to those on private lands.

The livestock industry likes to suggest that private land leases provide more amenities for their operations like better water sources, move livestock promptly or fence maintenance that they “required”- in theory–to do on public lands. Of course, one of the problems with private livestock utilizing public lands is that many of these requirements are not met.

Plus, one is left asking, if grazing is on public lands is such a lousy deal, why ranchers across the West fight so hard to maintain the current grazing prices and system. They aren’t doing the public any favors.

But these dollar figures ignore the real cost of livestock grazing on public lands and expenses that are not reflected in the miserly fee paid by ranchers.

For instance, if cows trample a salmon spawning streambank, the public picks up the cost of restoring the salmon or the stream. It is these ecological costs that are the real subsidy.

According to the BLM’s figures on Rangeland Health, the agency claims that 10,480 allotments (72%) of the allotments it has reviewed have met these standards. That is 55% of the total allotment area, while 16% of allotments (29% of entire allotment area surveyed) have failed standards due to livestock grazing. But like many statistics the BLM uses to prop up the livestock industry, these statistics distort the truth.

The BLM uses questionable accounting methods to obscure the truth.  Its figures include allotments in its assessment that are “improving” or “moving towards’ the Rangeland Health standards. Given that a significant majority of BLM lands are either stable or declining conditions, but stable in poor to fair condition (fair meaning up to 50% of the key forage plants that should be there are non-existent) the real story is that most of our federal public lands are not properly functioning.

Beyond the fact that a majority of all our public lands are currently degraded by livestock owners using them for private profit, the mere presence of domestic livestock has many other impacts (i.e., costs) that are not part of the “Rangeland Health” assessment.

The presence of domestic livestock tramples biocrusts which prevents soil losses and inputs carbon into soils. Biocrusts also limit the spread of cheatgrass, an invasive grass that burns readily and is one of the primary reason or massive range fires. Livestock are a significant source of water pollution around the West. Livestock are consuming forage that would otherwise support native herbivores from grasshoppers to elk. Disease from domestic animals like sheep can be transferred to wild bighorn, resulting in the decline or loss of entire herds of wild sheep. Fence collisions constitute a significant cause of mortality for low flying sage grouse, and also hinder migration for other wildlife like pronghorn.

In short, the West’s welfare ranchers get a massive subsidy by grazing public lands. Though the $1.35 an AUM is easily one of the most easily identified subsidies, it is dwarfed by the real ecological costs.

More articles by:

George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy. He serves on the board of the Western Watersheds Project.

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