The Obama administration announced Jan. 31 that it would not increase the $1.35 monthly fee charged for each cow and calf the livestock industry grazes on western public land. The fee remains at its lowest legal limit for the sixth year in a row—far below what federal agencies spend to administer grazing permits, far below market rates, and far below what’s needed to address the severe ecological damage to public lands that is caused by livestock grazing.
Habitat destruction driven by grazing is a primary factor in the decline of threatened and endangered species including the desert tortoise, Mexican spotted owl, southwestern willow flycatcher, least Bell’s vireo, Mexican gray wolf, Oregon spotted frog and Chiricahua leopard frog, in addition to dozens of other species of imperiled mammals, fish, amphibians and springsnails that live on western public land. Livestock grazing is also a primary factor contributing to unnaturally severe western wildfires, watershed degradation, soil loss and the spread of invasive plants.
“Livestock grazing is the most widespread destructive use of America’s public lands,” said Taylor McKinnon with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Instead of subsidizing that damage, grazing fees need to cover the costs—to taxpayers—of running the grazing program for the benefit of cattlemen, restoring ecosystems and recovering the native, wild animals and plants that grazing is driving toward extinction.”
The fees will apply to livestock grazing across 258 million acres of western public land administered by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM)—81 percent of the land administered by the two agencies in the 11 western states. There are approximately 23,600 public-lands ranchers, representing about 6 percent of all livestock producers west of the Mississippi River.
A 1986 executive order and 1978’s Public Rangelands Improvement Act prohibit the fee from falling below $1.35 per animal unit month, which is only 12 cents more than monthly rates charged in 1966 and roughly the same as a 13-ounce can of dog food. Market rates for grazing unirrigated western private land exceed $10 per animal unit month.
The low federal grazing fee contributes to the harm caused by livestock grazing on public lands for two primary reasons—(1) the below-fair-market-value fee encourages annual grazing on even the most marginal lands and allows for increased grazing on other areas, and (2) since a percentage of the funds collected is required to be used on range mitigation and restoration, the low fee equates to less funding for environmental mitigation and restoration of the affected lands.
In its 2005 report, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that BLM and Forest Service grazing receipts fail to recover even 15 percent of administrative costs and are much lower than fees charged by the other federal agencies, states and private ranchers. The GAO found that the BLM and Forest Service grazing fee decreased by 40 percent from 1980 to 2004, while grazing fees charged by private ranchers increased by 78 percent for the same period. To recover expenditures, the BLM and Forest Service would have had to charge $7.64 and $12.26 per animal unit month respectively.
“By any measure—ecosystem health, biodiversity conservation or fiscal responsibility—raising the grazing fee is just good old American common sense,” said McKinnon. “Reform is long overdue.”
In 2011 the Obama administration denied an Administrative Procedures Act rulemaking petition by the Center for Biological Diversity and other groups seeking to raise the fee—a decision those groups had to sue the administration to make. The administration instead chose to keep the fee at its lowest allowable legal limit.
For more information on the Center for Biological Diversity's work to reform public-lands grazing policies, please click here.
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The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 320,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.