WASHINGTON February 22, 2019 – The U.S. Interior Department has reduced fees for grazing cattle and sheep on federal public lands to the minimum allowed under federal law, $1.35 an animal-month. Yesterday’s announcement applies to grazing in national forests and on public lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management.
The 41-year old formula has been a boon for livestock operators whose animals graze on federal public lands, but a large proportion of BLM grazing land fails to meet the BLM’s own rangeland health standards. The new $1.35 monthly fee, down from $1.41 a month, is for each cow with a calf, or five sheep or goats. A large proportion of BLM grazing allotments are failing to meet Rangeland Health standards.
“BLM’s own records reveal that much of the sagebrush West is in severely degraded condition due to excessive commercial livestock grazing,” said PEER’s Advocacy Director Kirsten Stade. “Lowering already ultra-low grazing fees only encourages more abuse of public rangelands.”
Costs to administer the grazing fee program exceed the money collected, resulting in taxpayer subsidies of about $100 million per year. Grazing fees were initially based on a “fair-market value” set at $1.23 per AUM in 1966. If the federal government adjusted the fee annually to keep pace with inflation, the current rate would be $9.47. In addition, cattle sizes have increased markedly over the years: In 1974, an Animal Unit Month provided forage for a cow weighing 1,000 pounds; today the average slaughterweight for an adult cow is 1,400 pounds. A report by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service shows the average monthly grazing fee for livestock leases on private lands in 16 western states was $22.60 per animal unit.
“These rock-bottom prices don’t even cover the cost of administering the permits, so the American taxpayers are footing the bill for a massive welfare program that degrades our public lands,” said Erik Molvar of Western Watersheds Project. “Even with the low fees, our western mountains and basins are typically so arid or fragile that federal land managers have to sacrifice the health of the land to authorize grazing levels that are profitable for commercial livestock operations.”
Half of the federal grazing fees pay for “range improvements” on public lands. These include fences, corrals and cattle troughs that benefit and subsidize livestock operations while causing further environmental degradation. Barbed-wire fences are a major cause of death for sage-grouse and scientists have termed the denuded areas around livestock troughs “piospheres,” which become hotspots for the spread of invasive weeds.
“Federal grazing policy caters to a tiny fraction of the livestock industry and the fees don’t begin to cover the costs,” said Randi Spivak, public lands director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Indirect costs include the killing of important native predators, such as wolves and bears, and trampled landscapes and rivers. It’s a bad deal for wildlife, public lands and American taxpayers. The federal grazing program is long overdue for an overhaul.”
The fee structure charged to livestock operators on America’s public lands has remained unchanged since Congress passed the 1978 Public Rangelands Improvement Act (PRIA). A three-tier formula dictates federal grazing fees based on market indicators but is not indexed to inflation. A 2015 study by the Center for Biological Diversity, Costs and Consequences, the Real Price of Livestock Grazing on America’s Public Lands, found that federal grazing fees were just 7 percent of what it would cost to graze livestock on similar state and private lands.
“Federal agencies should be charging fair-market value for commercial livestock grazing on western public lands, and only allowing livestock at levels and in places where major environmental impacts can be prevented,” said Chris Krupp of WildEarth Guardians. “With the fee formula set by statute, Congress must step in to reform public lands grazing. It must revise the PRIA’s fee formula as the first step in ending a subsidy that damages more public lands than any other federal program.”