Federal Grazing Fees: the Hidden Subsidy

I’m writing in response to Greta Anderson’s recent post titled “What does coexistence with large carnivores actually mean?”  Greta highlights the fallacy that “coexistence” between public lands ranchers and wolves is fair to both wolves and ranchers.  Whereas, in actual practice the long-term “existence” of ranchers is favored over the existence of wolves, and is supported by a variety of sources of monetary compensation.  One source she mentions but elects to not elaborate on is the “artificially low grazing fee.”  Few people realize the magnitude this subsidy.

Public lands ranchers pay an “almost free” grazing rate of $1.35 per month for a cow and her calf (animal unit).  I have heard the analogy made that “you can’t feed a hamster for that,” but I don’t own a hamster and haven’t actually verified the truth of that statement.  I do know that it costs more than that to feed my chickens.

However, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the average New Mexico grazing fee for private pasture was $20.50 per animal unit in 2019 – over 15 times the federal rate!  Part of the justification for the lower federal grazing fee is to compensate ranchers for any added costs of accommodating other authorized “multiple uses” of federal public lands, such as endangered species recovery and conservation.  It is a substantial pre-paid subsidy that is largely hidden from view by the public.

Let’s assume a rancher is running 1000 head on federal grazing allotments, for which she or he pays $1350 in monthly grazing fees.  The market rate for private pasture would be $20,500.  So, the effective subsidy just from reduced grazing fees alone is $19,150 per month.  Extrapolated to a full year the subsidy is a staggering $229,800 or about $230 for every cow!!  The savings on grazing fees alone should be sufficient to support a crew of range riders and other depredation prevention practices, or simply cover the cost of livestock preyed upon by Mexican wolves.

As Ms. Anderson aptly concludes “[u]nless you are a rancher who is willing to forego removals of wolves for livestock depredations, you aren’t coexisting.”

David Parsons is a Wildlife Biologist with Project Coyote and The Rewilding Institute.