The federal government just reduced its grazing fee to $1.35 an animal unit month, known as AUM, for ranchers with grazing privileges on Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service lands. According to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, grazing on private lands typically runs $22.60 an AUM or more for leases.
But the price of grazing 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 subsidized cost is that since 1966, the average cow and calf are considerably larger, and require more forage. As a result an AUM, the amount of vegetation needed to sustain a cow and calf, is now considerably less, but most grazing allotments have not been adjusted to reflect 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 to be more than $1 billion annually and covers only 7 percent of the real costs of administrating these lands, according to a 2015 study.
The ranching industry claims that BLM and Forest Service 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 forest 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 Forest Service 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 while public lands require — in theory — investments from ranchers. Of course one of the problems with private livestock using public lands is that many of these requirements are not met.
Plus, one is left asking, if grazing on public lands is such a lousy deal, why do 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 stream bank, 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, or 72 percent, of the allotments it has reviewed have met these standards. That's 55 percent of the allotment area, while 16 percent of allotments — 29 percent of entire allotment area surveyed — have failed due to livestock grazing.
But like many statistics the BLM uses to prop up the 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 toward” the rangeland health standards. Given that a significant majority of BLM lands are in either "stable" or "declining" conditions — but stable in "poor" to "fair" condition and "fair" meaning up to 50 percent of the key forage plants that should be there are nonexistent — the real story is that most of our federal public lands are not properly functioning.
Beyond the fact that a majority of public lands are now degraded by livestock owners using them for private profit, the mere presence of domestic livestock has many other impacts and costs not part of the 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.