The Social Carbon Cost of Public Land Livestock Grazing

Cattle trampling BLM lands in Oregon. Photo: George Wuerthner.

An important paper was published in Environmental Management about the social carbon costs of public land livestock grazing. The paper Climate, Ecological, and Social Costs of Livestock Grazing on Western Public Lands, authored by Boone Kauffman, Robert Beschta, Peter Lacy, and Marc Liverman, examines the actual carbon costs of livestock grazing and argues for the positive benefit of federal land livestock grazing termination to the public.

In their paper, the authors demonstrate that emissions from cattle (enteric formation and manure deposition) are a significant but unreported contribution to carbon emissions.

Public lands livestock grazing equaled 12.4 million t CO2e/year. They argue that the social costs of public land livestock grazing in terms of carbon emissions vastly surpass what the federal government receives in grazing fees.

They estimate the social carbon cost of public lands grazing to general taxpayers to be $1.1–2.4 billion/year. This massive subsidy to the livestock industry significantly exceeds the paltry amount that ranchers pay to graze their livestock on public lands.

However, more importantly, the researchers show that public land livestock grazing grossly exceeds the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Industrial Greenhouse emitters and are essentially unreported GHG emissions from public lands.

For instance, in the Lakeview District, Oregon Resource Management Plan (BLM 2004), the BLM authorized 164,128 AUMs of livestock grazing on nearly 1.2 million hectares of public land. Greenhouse gas emissions from that grazing totals between 64,000 and 144,000 t CO2e/ year, far above the 25,000 t CO2e/year EPA reporting limit.

Added to this direct contribution of livestock to GHG emissions, the authors note that livestock-induced degradation of native plant communities reduced carbon sequestration due to desertification, degradation, and land cover change associated with livestock activities.

The additional and collateral costs to society of CO2 emissions include 1) premature deaths caused by extreme heat, (2) impacts on agricultural yields, (3) energy use in response to temperature changes, and (4) sea-level rise.

Public lands management agencies like the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service are required by law (Executive Order 13990 (2021) and Interior Secretarial Order 3399) to fully account for carbon emissions from federal lands. Yet these agencies regularly ignore the contribution that public lands livestock in its grazing permit authorizations has on carbon emissions.

For instance, the 1.4 million AUMs of grazing on Oregon’s federally managed public lands results in an SCC estimate of $ 101 million (100-year GWP) to $226 million (20-year GWP) per year for Oregon.

Forcing the federal agencies to include these social carbon costs in their analysis of any public lands grazing permit authorization would demonstrate that the federal government violates its own EPA standards.

Reducing carbon emissions isn’t the only benefit that cessation of livestock grazing would provide. Numerous studies have documented the ongoing ecological costs of livestock grazing, which include pollution of waterways, damage to riparian areas, spread of flammable plants like cheatgrass, social displacement of native herbivores, the killing of native predators and “pests” (prairie dogs, grasshoppers, etc.), transfer of disease from domestic animals to native species, soil compaction, destruction of social crusts, among other social costs to the public.

For this reason, it is surprising that many environmental organizations, from the Greater Yellowstone Coalition to the Sierra Club, are unwilling to challenge public lands livestock grazing. For instance, the Sierra Club still contends that public lands grazing may be appropriate if it helps wildlife, sequesters carbon or other alleged benefits even while it acknowledges the multiple negative impacts associated with livestock production. None of the presume benefits outweigh the numerous negative impacts including the social carbon costs of continued livestock production. The Club as well as other environmental organizations should unequivocally call for and work for its termination.

The contribution to the food supply of livestock produced on federally managed public lands is trivial; cattle grazed on these public lands account for <1.6% of all US beef production. While this analysis of social cost of carbon only applies to federal lands, it is obvious that private land livestock production is the elephant in the room in terms of carbon costs.

The continued livestock grazing on public lands violates federal mandates to reduce GHG emissions and is a massive subsidy to public lands ranchers.

The Kauffman et al. paper provides more evidence that the termination of domestic livestock use of our public domain is economically and ecologically beneficial to the public.

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