Grace Kuhn: Paying the price for livestock grazing on public lands

(Brian Maffly | The Salt Lake Tribune) In this 2015 photo, cattle graze on Garfield County's Aquarius Plateau in the Dixie National Forest in Utah.

The 2020 federal grazing fee was recently announced and, to no real surprise, the agencies that are charged with protecting our public lands are instead, protecting ranchers.

The grazing fee remains at $1.35 per month per Animal Unit Month, or cow/calf pair — the absolute minimum allowed under current law.

Across the West, cattlemen graze their private livestock on our public lands for a fraction of market rate — literally at a 90 percent discount, thanks to tax subsidies. The public lands livestock program produces only 1.9% of our nation’s beef, yet has cost taxpayers more than $1 billion over the past decade.

Keep in mind: The vast majority of the time, the taxpayer is not supplementing small family ranches; rather we’re footing the bill for large corporations taking advantage of a federal program.

But of course, we’re not the only ones who are affected. Ranchers who hold public lands grazing permits view wild horses, for instance, as competition for their cheap, subsidized grazing. While the Bureau of Land Management claims there are 88,000 wild horses on our western public lands, recent congressional reports state that there are between 700,000 to 1 million domestic cattle that are permitted to graze.

But cattlemen don’t like to share, despite the fact that our wild horses inhabit just 17 percent of the federal rangelands that are available for livestock grazing. And, on the small amount of land designated as mustang habitat, 80 percent of the forage is allocated to privately owned livestock instead of federally protected animals.

Even that is not enough for many ranchers. They want to clear the public lands of anything that gets in the way of their profit — wolves, bison, mountain lions, coyotes — they all pay the price for simply living their natural lives in their natural habitat. The numbers are tough to read.

Each year, Wildlife Services, an agency under the U.S. Department of Agriculture, kills millions of native wild animals mostly to protect livestock and other agribusinesses. In 2018, agents killed 2.6 million animals, including 375 mountain lions. Lions and wolves don’t even have to kill to be killed. If public lands ranchers want predators eliminated just because they are present on their grazing allotments, the USDA will eliminate them.

Some folks out West claim public land ranching is vital to the western way of life. That it’s an economic necessity for rural towns and that without it, family ranching will die. But data reveals that public lands ranching provides just one dollar out of every $2,500 of taxable income in the 11 Western states with the greatest amount of public land. On both public and private lands in those Western states, the livestock industry actually accounts for less than half of one percent (0.5%) of all income.

When grazing fees continue at a bottomed-out rate of $1.35, the commercial livestock industry gets richer while average citizens, our public lands, wild horses and endangered wildlife pay the price.

Grace Kuhn

Grace Kuhn is an avid traveler to public lands in the West and is the communications director for the American Wild Horse Campaign.