How to Stop Grazing on Public Lands: Buy Out the Permits

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

Across the West, it is well documented that livestock grazing is one of the most destructive land uses on public lands. Some 250 million acres of public lands including those administered by the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, as well as some national wildlife refuges and even some national park units are grazed by domestic livestock.


Livestock production is not benign. Livestock pollute public waters with their waste. Livestock compact soils reducing infiltration. Their hooves break up biocrusts which hold the soil together and reduce wind erosion. They spread diseases to wildlife, for instance, pneumonia to bighorn sheep. They spread weeds. They eat forage that might otherwise support native herbivores from ground squirrels to elk. They socially displace native animals like elk from the best lands. We kill predators like wolves, cougars, bears, and coyotes to facilitate livestock operations. Fences on public lands block wildlife migrations, and serve a look out posts for avian predators that prey on sage grouse and other endangered species. Grazing can also reduce the capacity of soil to store carbon.

To add insult to injury, we charge ranchers a ridiculously low fee for grazing our public lands. Currently the fee is $1.35 an AUM (animal unit month) or the amount of forage a cow and calf can consume in a month. You could not feed a pet goldfish on $1.35 a month.

A 2005 General Accounting Office review estimated that federal public lands grazing on BLM and Forest Service lands may cost taxpayers as much as $500 million to $1 billion annually in indirect and direct costs-a huge subsidy to a small number of livestock producers.

While livestock grazing on public lands is a privilege—that can be revoked at any time—it is almost never done. From a public policy perspective ending public lands grazing is desirable. However, given the entrenched political power of the ranching industry, removing livestock from public lands is difficult.

Range conservationists also have a financial vested interest in maintaining livestock grazing. If there are no cows or sheep on the land, there is no need for a range con. So, the range conservationists will do just about anything they can to maintain livestock even in the face of tremendous ecological damage. Since it’s not their money, they will propose new grazing management plans, new fencing, more water developments, more range riders, or whatever, to keep livestock on the range when in most cases, simply eliminating livestock is by far the best policy from both an economic and ecological perspective.


However, there is one mechanism that has the potential to free our public lands of the livestock scourge —livestock grazing permit retirement. The way permit retirement works the rancher volunteers to give up their public lands grazing privileges on a specific allotment in exchange for a predetermined amount of funding, The permit retirement is voluntary.

At this point in time the funds for such permit retirement have come from private sources including individuals and foundations, though it would be advantageous if public funding could be part of any legislation.

In the past getting legislation that would apply to all public lands has been thwarted by livestock organizations.

The best way to guarantee permeance is to include grazing permit retirement language in any public lands including bill the creation of a new national monuments, national recreation areas, national parks, wilderness, or other similar legislation.

For example, the legislation that created the Boulder White Cloud wilderness areas in central Idaho contained a clause authorizing the BLM and Forest Service to accept “donated” grazing permits. The permits would then be “permanently” retired.

One of the reasons this is critical is that permanent retirement gives much greater certainty that no future public lands administer can suddenly reauthorize livestock grazing.

If part of a legislative package, it’s important to designate a specific area for grazing permit retirement and to include language that says any allotment that is part of the mapped designated retirement area can be included as well.

In the above example of the Boulder White Cloud legislation, while the total amount of new wilderness was approximately a quarter of a million acres, the mapped footprint for grazing retirement is nearly 750,000 acres. Thus far grazing by livestock as a result of permit retirement has been eliminated on 100,000 acres in the Boulder White Clouds.

Currently there is legislation being reintroduced into Congress to create new public lands designation, including three wilderness bills for California, several wilderness bills in Colorado and the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act that would protect lands in five western states. These and other new land protection designations should all include voluntary grazing permit language.

During the planning process for both BLM and the Forest Service, the public can demand that grazing permit retirement be part of any updated management plans.

In the absence of overall legislation that would remove private livestock from all public lands, permit retirement is the best way to gradually extinguish livestock impacts on public lands heritage.


George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy