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Commentary

Livestock grazing is one of the most destructive land uses on public lands. Some 250 million acres of public lands including those administered by the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, as well as some national wildlife refuges and even some national park units are grazed by domestic livestock.

Direct and indirect costs

Livestock production is not benign. Livestock pollutes public waters with their waste. Livestock compact soils reducing infiltration. Their hooves break up biocrusts which hold the soil together and reduce wind erosion. They spread diseases to wildlife, for instance, pneumonia to bighorn sheep. They spread weeds. They eat forage that might otherwise support native herbivores from ground squirrels to elk. They socially displace native animals like elk from the best lands. We kill predators like wolves, cougars, bears, and coyotes to facilitate livestock operations. Fences on public lands block wildlife migrations and serve as lookout posts for avian predators that prey on sage grouse and other endangered species. Grazing can also reduce the capacity of soil to store carbon.

To add insult to injury, we charge ranchers a ridiculously low fee for grazing our public lands. Currently, the fee is $1.35 an AUM (animal unit month) or the amount of forage a cow and calf can consume in a month. You could not feed a pet goldfish on $1.35 a month.

A 2005 General Accounting Office review estimated that federal public lands grazing on BLM and Forest Service lands may cost taxpayers as much as $500 million to $1 billion annually in indirect and direct costs-a huge subsidy to a small number of livestock producers.

While livestock grazing on public lands is a privilege — that can be revoked at any time — it is almost never done. From a public policy perspective ending public lands grazing is desirable. However, given the entrenched political power of the ranching industry, removing livestock from public lands is difficult.

Grazing permit retirement

However, there is one mechanism that has the potential to free our public lands of the livestock scourge — livestock grazing permit retirement. The way permit retirement works the rancher volunteers to give up their public lands grazing privileges on a specific allotment in exchange for a predetermined amount of funding, usually from private sources. Permit retirement is voluntary.

The best way to guarantee permanence is to include grazing permit retirement language in any public lands including bill the creation of new national monuments, national recreation areas, national parks, wilderness, or other similar legislation.

For example, the legislation that created the Boulder White Cloud wilderness areas in central Idaho contained a clause authorizing the BLM and Forest Service to accept “donated” grazing permits. The permits would then be “permanently” retired.

One of the reasons this is critical is that permanent retirement gives much greater certainty that no future public lands administer can suddenly reauthorize livestock grazing.

In the above example of the Boulder White Cloud legislation, while the total amount of new wilderness was approximately a quarter of a million acres, the mapped footprint for grazing retirement is nearly 750,000 acres. Thus far grazing by livestock as a result of permit retirement has been eliminated on 100,000 acres in the Boulder White Clouds.

In the absence of overall legislation that would remove private livestock from all public lands, permit retirement is the best way to give ranchers a financial boot, while gradually extinguishing livestock impacts on public lands heritage.

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George Wuerthner is an ecologist, former hunting guide, and has published 38 books including “Welfare Ranching — The Subsidized Destruction of the West.”

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