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.

George Wuerthner is an ecologist who has published 38 books including two addressing wildfire issues. He divides his time between Livingston, Montana and Bend, Oregon. Guest Shots are solely the opinion of their authors.

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(6) comments

Chad guenter

I am not a rancher, I dont even eat beef. But I fully support ranchers access to largely unused/unwanted BLM lands to PROVIDE part of this nations beef supply. If I did eat beef, I would want Wyoming raised cattle.

Tyler Johnson

While I largely agree with the sentiment of this article there are a couple of nuances that need pointing out
1. While there is certainly an ecological cost that has to be subsidized by low grazing fees there is an actual financial subsidy as well. in 2005 the Government Accountability Office found that only 1/6 of the true cost of having livestock grazing as a use on public land is returned in grazing fees (https://www.gao.gov/new.items/d05869.pdf). That means that 5/6 of the cost (agency time, environmental analysis, permit enforcement etc.) of having livestock grazing on public lands is subsidized so there is a very real financial subsidy.
2. However, the reason that federal land agencies such as the BLM and Forest Service take on this subsidy is that a part of those agency's missions is to support rural economies. There are many towns in Wyoming, Idaho, and Colorado that would not exist if the ranchers that rely on public lands to make it through the year went out of business. There are still many places where ranching is the umbrella industry that keeps the Ford Dealer, Broliums grocery, gas stations, schools, etc etc. going. That is why Federal agencies support rural economies. And don't scoff at that notion if you enjoy skiing on Forest Service land at a developed resort, those ski areas are there for exactly the same reason - to support rural economies. Sure Vail would still be a nice rural place to visit but it wouldn't be "Vail" with all the ski industry business that goes with it if the only skiing were on the 40 or so acres of private land. Vail is "Vail" because the ski area uses thousands of acres of Forest Service land.

Ed Loosli

Unfortunately, under the Trump administration, the Federal Court system is one of the last bastions for upholding our environmental/wildlife laws. The BLM already has in place directives to preserve and protect migration corridors. I hope the Wyoming Outdoor Council and like minded organizations are preparing to go to court to stop this oil/gas leasing within the Red Desert-Hoback mule deer migration corridor.

Richard Jones

What a bogus headline. In the article itself, it states that the mule deer have very persistent migration routes. Unless oil and gas development somehow blocks off vast stretches of of these historic routes there is no evidence that shows these migration patterns will be stopped by this development. The deer are highly adaptible to minor human prescense unless they are physically harrassed or blocked off. The presence of roads and widely spaced structures are not disruptive.
show me the science that says otherwise.

Josh Metten

Richard, the website link in the article is a great start for you to look at the clear science which shows Oil and Gas leasing disrupts mule deer migration. Also look up the amazing work being done by the folks at the Wyoming Migration Initiative. They have nearly a decade of mule deer collar data showing a clear negative correlation between oil and gas development and mule deer. The best part about this challenge is we can still have oil and gas leasing elsewhere, just not in the migration corridor. It's a win for wildlife and Wyoming.

http://migrationinitiative.org/content/red-desert-hoback-migration-assessment
https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/gcb.13711

Noah Osnos

Josh, you are correct; many varied environmental groups have helped to fund this research, and its conclusions are clear. Also, many other researchers have noted the vast damage the unrestrained and poorly designed/maintained fencing does to wildlife. Lastly, for all the ranchers out there - let's consider bison (with, say, RFID to let them roam free) - these animals are adapted to the western landscape and require much less water resources, etc.

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