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As the Trump administration decreases fees for ranchers that graze livestock on public lands, a group of public employees says that illegal grazing on federal land is rampant across the West.
“While heavily subsidized grazing is not new to this administration, reducing low fees even further is a step in the wrong direction,” said Kirsten Stade, advocacy director of the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). “Keeping grazing fees so low—at levels that are as much as 80% lower than for private lands on the open market—amounts to a subsidy of a private industry that operates at the expense of the American people.”
Last month, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and U. S. Forest Service (USFS) decided that federal grazing fees for 2018 would be set at $1.41 per animal unit month (AUM) for both agencies, a 25% decrease from $1.87 per animal unit in 2017. The 2016 rate was $2.11. One AUM is equal to one cow and her calf, one horse, or five sheep or goats that use federal public land.
The newly calculated grazing fee was determined by a congressional formula and takes effect Thursday, March 1, 2018, according to the Department of Interior’s announcement. The fee applies to around 18,000 grazing permits and leases administered by the BLM, and nearly 6,500 permits administered by the U.S. Forest Service across 16 western states.
The $1.41 federal rate is a fraction of the private grazing-land rental rates in the same Western states. According to the most recent data from USDA’s National Agriculture Statistics Service, comparable grazing fees would range from $9 per AUM in Arizona to $41 per AUM in Nebraska. The 16 state average where the $1.41 federal rate is being charged is $22.70 for private lands.
Stade said the lower grazing fees under the Trump administration are hypocritical. “While conservative ideologues love to tout the virtues of a free market, when it comes to public-lands grazing they become fierce advocates of the welfare state,” Stade said. “Bringing federal grazing fees closer to market rates would at least begin to pay for some of the massive damage to native vegetation, wildlife, surface water and recreation areas caused by livestock grazing on public lands.”
The public employees group, made up primarily of federal, state and local government scientists, monitors how ranchers that rent federal public land comply with their agreements. PEER says there are a large number of cases of unauthorized grazing occurring throughout the West, a claim backed up by a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report.
GAO’s two public land grazing reports, the first in 1990 and the most recent in 2016, found that BLM is ineffective at deterring or documenting unauthorized grazing activities. The GAO recommended significant changes to improve compliance. PEER says little progress has been made.
In 2017, PEER filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit to compel the Trump administration to provide information regarding how they would approach the GAO recommendations.
According to PEER, documents they obtained by the FOIA suit show that BLM, “initially scheduled steps to implement better recording of grazing trespass incidents, adopt formal procedures for handling trespasses, and conduct compliance inspections.” By the summer of 2017, “BLM’s schedule slipped from a date certain to ‘ongoing’ and later to ‘on hold.’ By fall, its official regulatory agenda for 2018 removed any further action altogether,” the group said in a press release.
With hundreds of documented public-land grazing violations occurring annually, BLM still does not track and report the statistics, according to PEER. BLM has not delivered information to PEER itemizing illegal grazing, as the suit requests. Without public reporting, the size, scale and impact of commercial grazing violations remain unknown, according to PEER.
Stade pointed out that BLM has not updated its 1987 handbook describing procedures that no longer reflect its actual practices. “BLM’s own assessments show that more than 30 million acres – an area the size of New York State – fail its own Standards for Rangeland Health due to overgrazing,” Stade said.
The Public Lands Council, an affiliate of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association that supports public land ranching, has not commented on the grazing rate change or the changes to BLM illegal grazing monitoring. The group says that public land ranching is “a win for taxpayers,” stating that:
- Ranchers’ work to maintain the land saves the BLM approximately $750 million in taxpayer dollars each year.
- According to the Department of the Interior, grazing on public lands contributes a minimum of $1.5 billion annually to the economy. Public lands supply about 21% of all livestock in the western states.
- Ranchers paid the federal government $12 million for grazing permit fees in 2014.
- Ranchers save the BLM an average of $3 per acre. It costs the BLM $2 per acre to manage public land that is grazed compared to $5 per acre of ungrazed land. This is due to the time and resources ranchers contribute to take care of the land on which they hold permits for grazing.