Grazing fees could go up by orders of magnitude
During the 41-day seizure of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, Ammon Bundy and his band of armed militants claimed to be representing the best interests of ranchers who graze their cattle on U.S. public lands by demanding that the lands be disposed of to state and private ownership.
But those who advocate for handing over our American lands—including the Bundy family, the Utah-based American Lands Council, and lawmakers in Congress like Congressman Rob Bishop (R-UT)—haven’t thought through who stands to lose most from this policy, beginning with America’s ranchers.
There are approximately 18,000 ranchers who graze their livestock on 155 million acres of federal public lands. With very, very few exceptions, each one of those ranchers abides by the law and agrees to pay a nominal fee to run livestock on U.S. public lands. In fact, only 285 ranchers have bills that are past due. That’s a delinquency rate of less than two percent.
The exceedingly low rate of delinquency may have something to do with grazing rates on U.S. public lands, which are significantly lower than what state’s charge on state-owned lands. In 2016, ranchers pay $2.11 per animal unit month (AUM, equivalent to the amount of food a cow and a calf eat in a month).
For comparison, there’s not a single state in the Western U.S. that charges less than $3 per AUM and most states charge ranchers orders of magnitude more to graze cattle on state-owned lands. In Oregon, where the armed standoff occurred, ranchers pay $18 per AUM to graze cattle on state-owned lands. In Montana, ranchers pay the state nearly $20 per AUM. (As a side note, Nevada does not have a grazing fee for its state lands because it sold nearly all of them off.)
Sources: Arizona (conversation with the Arizona State Land Department), New Mexico*, Utah*, Wyoming (conversation with the Wyoming Office of State Lands and Investments), Idaho, Washington* (conversation with the Washington Department of Natural Resources), Colorado**, Oregon, Montana
* Most recent data available is from 2015 rather than 2016
**Colorado has a tiered system where the grazing fee is calculated by region and type of land, this number is an average of all Tier 1 (leases on which the State Land Board owns most or all the improvements) fees
And on private lands in Western states, ranchers pay lease rates between 4 times and 11 times more than what the federal government charges.
Recently, the Bureau of Land Management announced that it would increase grazing fees on public lands by 42 cents per month, from $1.69 to $2.11. The small increase in the federal grazing fee reflects market conditions, including record high beef prices and similar increases in private grazing fees. In effect, the fee increases when market conditions favor ranchers and decreases when the market is less favorable.
The 42-cent federal increase is dwarfed by increases to grazing fees charged by Montana, Oregon, and Idaho. Between 2015 and 2016 the three states raised their grazing rates by $5.16, $3.76, and $1.32 respectively.
The Public Lands Council, a group that represents public land ranchers, expressed support for the small increase. The group’s executive director said, “We support the market-based formula used to determine the federal grazing fee, which rises and falls with conditions on the ground.”
But that did not stop some members of Congress from playing politics. Representative Rob Bishop (R-UT), a proponent of the land seizure movement, called the 42-cent increase “outlandish” and a matter of concern for “anyone who eats a Big Mac,” promising, “there will be pushback.”
Inflammatory rhetoric like Rep. Bishop’s encourages anti-government sentiment in the West and furthers the quixotic quest of a small minority of Westerners to seize national public lands. But it’s unlikely their message will gain significant ground among ranchers.
The facts remain: if national public lands are turned over to states or private landowners, Western ranchers would come out on the bottom.
Photo: Cattle, Wikimedia commons