Grazing on Public Lands

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Grazing on public lands

Grazing on public lands is the practice of raising livestock on land that is not privately owned. Livestock such as cattle and sheep eat forage (grass and other herbage) on the public land . Through the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, ranchers grazed livestock on federal and state public land in the western states.

The western livestock industry developed during the decades after the Civil War, according to a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) report. People headed west where the land was open. A prospective rancher just needed a headquarters, some horses and cowboy employees. Some ranches consisted of a dugout shelter for the people and a horse corral.

Livestock grazed on open land called the range. When livestock ate all the forage in one area, the rancher moved the herd and headquarters to another area. By 1870, there were 4.1 million beef cattle and 4.8 million sheep in 17 states, according to BLM. Thirty years later, there were 19.6 million cattle and 25.1 million sheep. As the number of livestock increased, the range became crowded and there was less forage.

The twentieth century opened with discussion in Congress about how to regulate use of public lands. After years of debate, Congress approved the Taylor Grazing Act in 1934. The act established a permit requirement and "significantly reduced" the number of ranchers and livestock, according to BLM. A portion of fees was allocated to the grazing district for improvements like fencing.

The act only addressed grazing as a land use . That policy changed with the approval of the 1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act . FLPMA stated that federal public lands and their resources would be managed for multiple uses that "best meet the present and future needs for the American people."

Passage of the act reflected concerns about environmental protection and conservation . At the same time, the increase in population brought more demand for recreational uses of public land. In the years since the passage of FLPMA and environmental protection laws, the land-use debate intensified.

Federal public lands include the 264 million acres managed by BLM in 12 western states and the 191 million acres of United States Forest Service land in 44 states. Federal grazing permits were issued by those jurisdictions, the National Park Service , and the Fish and Wildlife Service . BLM manages about half of the 270 million acres where grazing is allowed. Ranchers pay a fee called an animal unit month (AUM). This is based on the monthly amount of forage needed to sustain one cow and her calf, one horse, or five sheep or goats. The AUM in 2002 was $1.43. Opponents called the fee a government subsidy. They estimated an AUM of $11 for grazing on private land.

BLM records for fiscal year 2001 showed 15,643 operators (ranchers) of cattle, yearling, and buffalo; 1,232 operators of horses and burros; and 1,225 operators of sheep and goats. Those figure were not a total count since some operators may have raised more than one type of livestock. The BLM figures were from the administrative jurisdiction of Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, and Wyoming. California BLM administers some land in Nevada, and Montana administers all public land in North and South Dakota.

Within those states, active AUMs totaled 11.3 million as of November 29, 2001, according to BLM. Livestock cause more damage to public land than the chainsaw or the bulldozer, according to anti-grazing activists. Damage includes trampled vegetation, soil damage, water pollution , and the spread of invasive weeds, according to grazing opponents.

The beef and sheep industries are represented by the Public Lands Council (PLC), an organization that said grazing helped to preserve open space. PLC said that opponents incorrectly blamed ranchers for environmental degradation . According to PLC, research indicated that conservation goals on public land were easier to achieve when grazing was properly managed. Livestock managers could make improvements that would not be done if grazing was prohibited.

Grazing opponents disagreed and used various methods to limit grazing. Lawsuits claimed that grazing violated environmental regulations. Successful cases include the 1998 removal of livestock from the Gila River Basin in Arizona and New Mexico. The ruling was based on the Endangered Species Act and the protection of the spotted owl and other species .

Furthermore, activists tried to buy leases. They urged ranchers to end leases by retiring their permits. Another solution was proposed in 2002 by the National Public Lands Grazing Campaign. An umbrella group of various organizations, NPLGC wanted federal law changed to allow the voluntary retirement of grazing permits. The federal government would pay $175 per AUM to buy out leases. NPLGC said the plan would cost an average of $13.45 per acre.

The livestock industry rejected the plan. PLC said in April of 2002 that the plan could cost taxpayers more than $3.2 billion. Plan supporters countered that grazing "subsidies" cost taxpayers up to $460 million annually. The federal government had not taken action on the proposal as of May of 2002.

[Liz Swain ]



Holechek, Jerry, Rex Pieper, and Carlton Herbel. Range Management: Principles and Practices. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1998.

Wuerthner, George, Mollie Matheson, eds. Welfare Ranching: The Subsidized Destruction of the West. Washington, DC: Island Press, 2002.


Public Policy Center, National Cattlemen's Beef Association (Public Lands Council)., 1301 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Suite 300, Washington, D.C. 20004-1701 (202) 347-0228, Fax: (202) 638-0607, Email: [email protected], htttp:/

United States Bureau of Land Management., 1849 C Street, Washington, D.C. 20240 (202) 452-5125, Fax: (202) 452-5124, ,

Western Watersheds Project (National Public Lands Grazing Campaign)., P.O. Box 1770, Hailey, ID 83333 Email: [email protected],