Click here to register for our upcoming webinar: Death by a Million Hooves: Failing Our Public Lands

The Real Price and Consequences of Livestock Grazing on America’s Public Lands

Report analyzes taxpayer bailout of U.S. public lands ranching [Part II of a series on ranchers]

February 12, 2015 by Vickery Eckhoff (reprinted with permission from the Daily Pitchfork)

Each public lands livestock operator cost taxpayers nearly a quarter of a million dollars in subsidies over the last decade. 

Five hundred million dollars[1]. That’s what 21,000[2] ranchers who graze their livestock on America’s iconic western rangelands are estimated to have cost US taxpayers in 2014 — and every year for the past decade. This averages out to an annual taxpayer subsidy of $23,809 per rancher — approximately a quarter of a million dollars each since 2005. So why does this small subset, representing just 2.7% of US livestock producers, protest the “welfare rancher” label?

 The public lands grazing program is welfare.

That $23,809 — and it’s a lowball figure — is a form of public assistance similar to other welfare programs. The only difference is, it doesn’t arrive as a check in the mail. It instead represents a loss covered by taxpayers: the very large difference between what public lands ranchers pay in fees to the US government and what public lands grazing costs taxpayers every year. But it’s still a subsidy, as a newly updated economic analysis, Costs and Consequences: The Real Price of Livestock Grazing on America’s Public Landsmakes clear. And the recipients aren’t low income; a large number are millionaires and some are billionaires and multi-billion dollar corporations on Forbes various “rich lists”. Cattle barons, if you will.

Public lands ranching costs western ecosystems, wildlife and taxpayers.

“Several federal agencies permit livestock grazing on public lands in the United States, the largest being the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the Department of Agriculture’s United States Forest Service (USFS).

The vast majority of livestock grazing on BLM and USFS rangelands occurs in the 11 western states of Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Oregon, Montana, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.

Rangelands are non-irrigated and generally have vegetation that consists mostly of grasses, herbs and/or shrubs. They are different from pastureland, which may periodically be planted, fertilized, mowed or irrigated.”

So says the report, which was prepared by three economists for the Center for Biological Diversity and published in January 2015, the latest of numerous studies (see list at end of this article) to examine a program Americans know nothing about.

The 44-page fiscal analysis describes a federal program that exploits not just taxpayers but is ruinous to public lands and the wildlife that inhabit it, a viewpoint shared by rangeland science experts and conservation groups, from Defenders of Wildlife and the Center for Biological Diversity, to WildEarth Guardians, Western Watersheds Project, and many others.

An obvious culprit identified in the report (and its predecessors) is the negligible fee that livestock operators pay to graze a cow and her calf or five sheep for an entire month on public lands, otherwise defined as an AUM (animal unit month). In 2014 it was just $1.35 (priced less than a can of dog food) — a figure that is the lowest fee that can be legally charged.

The $1.35 figure has barely budged over the past 34 years[3] and is well below the market price to graze on private land ($21.60). Fees set by other federal agencies and individual states on public property are also significantly higher.

In 2014, BLM and USFS permit holders paid an estimated $18.5 million in fees to graze 1.14 million livestock “units” on the 229 million acres of federal land used for grazing. But only a fraction (between one-third and one-quarter) of that $18.5 million actually went into the US Treasury, according to the report. The majority was diverted to range rehabilitation and improvement funds to construct fences for containing livestock, and improving vegetation and forage. In other words, two-thirds to three quarters of the low fees ranchers pay go right back into their pockets, leaving approximately $7.9 million to help defray total costs…which are, well…enormous.

Indirect costs significantly higher than direct costs.

The study indicates that, in 2014, $143.6 million was directly appropriated to the grazing program (an amount that’s been consistent over the last 10 years). Some quick math reveals that, on average, public lands ranchers paid just $376 for what cost taxpayers $6,838 last year.

But that doesn’t reflect the indirect costs: 34 related programs and services enumerated at the back of the report (Appendix A, tables 1-4) that aren’t directly budgeted under grazing by BLM and USFS budgets or that are carried out by other government agencies or at the state and local level. These aren’t figured into the $143.6 million appropriated for the grazing recipients.

The entries either benefit livestock producers or remediate damage tied to their operations. Multiple programs deal with soil erosion, desertification, and the spread of noxious weeds while others deal with damage to streams, watersheds and riparian areas. Several others address harm to archeological and cultural resources (oftentimes, of indigenous peoples) and recreational areas used by the public. Four remedy harm to wildlife. Fire management and control is a big issue, too.

Two controversial programs directly remove and kill wildlife that threaten livestock at taxpayer expense. USDA Wildlife Services spends $8 million[4] to kill millions of native predators every year, courtesy of an unknowing public. The BLM’s Wild Horses and Burros program also removes thousands of federally protected horses and burros each year from designated wild horse habitat so that, during the ongoing drought, more water and forage are available for ranchers on public assistance. The cost of that program tops $80 million a year. That’s $380 per rancher to kill predators (wolves, coyotes, bear, cougars, bobcats and eagles) and ten times that much ($3,809) to get rid of wild horses and burros.

Add in the USDA’s livestock assistance program, under which payments are made directly to ranchers due to natural disasters, like droughts. And don’t forget all the various agencies indirectly involved with federal grazing issues and consequences: The US Army Corps of Engineers, the EPA, the USDA, and Dept. of Justice. What does it equal? Special interest welfare estimated between $500 million and $1 billion a year.

Here’s where the cattlemen’s claim to be great stewards of public grassland and forest preserve gets exposed — just like their disavowal of receiving welfare payments.

States the Western Watersheds Project,

“Public lands ranching is the most widespread commercial use of public lands in the United States. Ranching is one of the primary causes of native species endangerment in the American West; it is also the most significant cause of non-point source water pollution and desertification.

Public lands ranching significantly contributes to climate change by emissions of the global warming gases nitrous oxide and methane; it causes loss of soil carbon reserves by causing erosion and by substantially reducing the landscape’s potential to sequester carbon.”

Almost a year ago, Cliven Bundy ripped into low-income Americans for collecting government subsidies at the same time that he was stiffing the government of $1 million in back grazing fees. Since then, only a handful of articles have called out the rest of his public-lands ranching brethren for the hand-outs they receive. The mainstream media acts as though all that welfare ranching stuff disappeared with Bundy’s armed rebellion.

The time is here for journalists to inform the public about the federal grazing program. For too long, they’ve let the 2.7% of US livestock producers run away with the “sustainable” cowboy narrative — leaving the public, public lands, and wildlife paying the price.


This is Part II of a four-part SourceWatch series on ranchers in the media. 

Coming next:

Part III: Bad Ranchers, Bad Cows (peer-reviewed study of damage caused by cattle grazing in a national wildlife refuge)
Part IV: Forbes Billionaires Top US Welfare Ranchers List 

Read Part I: The Media Adores Ranchers. Here’s Why They Shouldn’t.


Studies and Reports:

Costs and Consequences: The Real Price of Livestock Grazing on America’s Public Lands, (Jan. 2015) by Christine Glaser, Karyn Moskowitz and Chuck Romaniello for the Center for Biological Diversity

Grazing Fees: Overview and Issues (June 2012) by Carol Hardy Vincent, Specialist in Natural Resources Policy for the Congressional Research Service (Prepared for Members and Committees of Congress) 

Trampling the Public Trust (Jan. 2010) by Debra L. Donohue for the Boston College Environmental Affairs Law Review

Fiscal Costs of Federal Public Lands Livestock Grazing (2005) Wild Earth Guardians

Taking Stock of Public Lands Grazing: An Economic Analysis by Thomas M. Power, Ph.D., Chair of the Economics Department at the University of Montana

Livestock Grazing: Federal Expenditures and Receipts Vary Depending on the Agency and the Purpose of the Fee Charged (Sept. 2005) Government Accountability Office (GAO)

Assessing the Full Cost of the Federal Grazing Program (Oct. 2002) by Karyn Moskowitz and Chuck Romaniello for the Center for Biological Diversity

Welfare Ranching: The Subsidized Destruction of the American West Edited by George Wuerthner and Mollie Matteson


Big Cattle, Big Gulp (Feb. 4, 2015) by Christopher Ketcham for The New Republic

Federal Grazing Program in Bundy Dispute Rips-Off Taxpayers, Wild Horses (April 25, 2014) by Vickery Eckhoff for Forbes

Grazing Improvement Act Will Fleece Taxpayers While Harming Environment (Dec. 3, 2013) by James McWilliams for Forbes 

On Wyoming’s Range, Water Is Scarce but Welfare Is Plenty (July 9, 2012) by Andrew Cohen for The Atlantic


[1] Fiscal Costs of Public Lands Livestock Grazing, WildEarth Guardians, 2005;; Moscowitz, K. and C. Romaniello.2002. Assessing the Full Cost of the Federal Grazing Program. Center for Biological Diversity. Tucson, Az. The estimated cost of the deferral grazing program at $500 million is consistent with estimates developed by other experts, Karl Hess (former special advisor on policy to the Assistant Secretary for Program, Policy, and Budget of the Department of the Interior) and Johanna Wald (senior attorney and Land Program Director, Natural Resources Defense Council) estimated the annual cost of the federal grazing program to be approximately $500 million. Hess, K. and and J.H. Wald. 1995. Grazing reform: here’s the answer. High Country News 27 (18). The Economic magazine has also reported the annual cost of the federal grazing program to be $460 million. Subsidized Cow Chow. The Economist (Mar. 7, 2002): 9.

[2] Costs and Consequences: the Real Price of Livestock Grazing on America’s Public Lands, p. 6: “In 2013, the BLM issued 15,739 permits to livestock operators and there were 5,711 livestock operators who had permits to graze in the national forest system. The numbers of USFS and BLM permits and livestock permit holders are not directly additive, but due to a number of livestock operators who have permits from both agencies and/or more than one grazing permit per agency, the total number of livestock operators is likely to be fewer than 21,540. This compares to the approximately 800,000 ranchers and cattle producers in the United States. (Statistic Brain, 2012). The number of operators benefitting from the USFS and BLM grazing program in the West is therefore less than 2.7 percent of the nation’s total livestock operators.

[3] The fee for 2015 was raised to $1.69 per AUM. According to Christine Glaser, one of the analysis’ three authors, “This miniscule increase does not change the basic message that the PRIA fee percentage of private fees has been decreasing pretty dramatically since 1981, and also between 2002 and 2013. See Table 10 in the report.”

[4] Fiscal Costs of Public Lands Livestock Grazing, WildEarth Guardians, 2005;

Be the first to know – and act.

Sign up to receive news, updates and action alerts, and get good news when it happens!

You can make a difference!

With your donation, our efforts to save wildlife across the western portion of the United States will have a larger chance of success.