Less than a penny a day: New USFS and BLM livestock grazing fees announced

If you are a public lands rancher in the American West, what’s the daily cost for your privilege to graze your private domestic sheep on U.S. Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management administered lands?  Less than a penny a day.

If you graze cows on federal public lands, the grazing fee per day per cow jumps up to around 3 cents per day.

Keep in mind that livestock grazing is authorized on nearly 250 million acres of federal public lands, including authorized within over 25% of all designated Wilderness acres in the lower 48 states. The cost of livestock grazing on native wildlife and clean water are well documented.

Below is a press release from Western Watersheds Project:

For immediate release: Feb. 1, 2022 

HAMILTON, Mont. – Today, the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service announced the fee for grazing on federal public lands in 2022: a mere $1.35 per cow/calf pair per month (also called the animal unit month, or AUM), the lowest possible fee allowed under a Ronald-Reagan-era Executive Order.

“The absurdly low fee paid by commercial beef cattle producers to graze public lands flies in the face of this Administration’s commitments to conservation, biodiversity and addressing the impacts of climate change,” said Josh Osher, Public Policy Director for Western Watersheds Project. “President Biden should immediately rescind Reagan’s Executive Order and establish a fee that reflects the true costs of public lands grazing.”

Despite contributing only 2-3 % of all the beef consumed in the United States, commercial grazing is one of the most heavily subsidized activities on public lands.  The program costs taxpayers a minimum of over a billion and half dollars every 10 years, and the minimal fee recoups just one-tenth of the cost of its administration. The cost to beef producers to feed their stock on public lands is substantially less than the cost to feed a pet hamster each month.

“It’s a great deal for the beef industry, but it’s a horrible deal for the American public because of the compounded costs of plant and animal extinction, fouled waterways, increased risks of wildfire, ongoing predator killing, and the irreplaceable cultural resources being trampled to bits,” said Osher.

The grazing fee is based on a temporary formula set in 1978 and continued through Executive Order in 1986. The fee was $2.31 per AUM in 1981, the highest fee ever charged, which adjusted for inflation would be the equivalent of $7.09 today, more than five times the current fee. Lease rates for private pastureland in the Western U.S. average over $20 per AUM.

“Beef producers on public lands are the only tenants in the country whose rents stay low, year after year,” remarked Osher. “The livestock industry is getting a sweet deal to stay on public lands while many people in the country struggle to find affordable housing.”

43 thoughts on “Less than a penny a day: New USFS and BLM livestock grazing fees announced”

    • Who’s blaming this on Trump? I don’t see that word anywhere here, including within the WWP press release, which is titled, “Biden Administration Continues to Subsidize the Destruction of the American West.”

      In my view, public lands advocates have been pointing out the incredibly low livestock grazing fees—and various costs to wildlife and clean water—during Clinton, Obama, and now Biden administration’s…as well as Bush and Trump administration’s.

      And what do you mean by “So why?” Not following.

  1. I agree that ENGOs have been against livestock grazing and wanting to increase fees, since, well, obviously since before 93, or “Cattle free by 93” wouldn’t have been a thing.

    My question was …. if folks who usually associate with D Admins, ENGOs of various kinds, want to increase fees, why didn’t they get their way? Who or what would be standing in the way?

    • “Who or what would be standing in the way?”

      Western U.S. senators with a D after their name. Also, in some cases, Western Govs and/or Western U.S. House reps with a D after their name.

      Also, not sure groups like WWP “usually associate with D Admins.” Pretty sure groups like WWP have sued Clinton, Bush, Obama, Trump, and Biden administration’s fairly equally.

      Regardless, how in the world can a penny a day be justified?

    • It’s almost impossible to get anything through the Senate even under favorable conditions. The combination of the 60-vote filibuster barrier and likely bipartisan Senate opposition to raising grazing charges would make it even more unlikely, no matter who controls the Senate or the White House. Look for it to happen circa 2100.

  2. I think it might be wrong to assume that cattle do that much damage to these ecosystems. It could be that there are benefits of cattle and sheep grazing on pubic land to the health of these ecosystems. I imagine that cost of billion and a half dollars to the American taxpayer in ten year period is some kind of best quess. Is this about the impact of cattle and sheep on public land or about money?

    It is difficult to take the money question seriously when we are willing to let billions of dollars of dead timber rot on the stump every year. (I couldn’t resist.)

    • It might be, but it isn’t. There is plenty of science showing the detrimental impacts of grazing to soils and ecosystems in western public lands. There is also plenty of science that shows that more intensive forest management (aggressive thinning, harvesting, regular low intensity burning) would benefit the ecosystems in question.

      The problem is that the ENGO complex won’t accept the forest science (hurts their bottom line, and they don’t trust USFS to administrate a nuanced harvesting policy) and in a similar way the grazing lobby won’t accept rangeland science (hurts their bottom line in the short term). The resulting policy compromises are perfect politics, no one is happy, (almost) everyone gets paid, and nothing changes.

      So I’d say you’re right, it’s 100% a money question- who benefits? Who decides? The incentives are backwards for making science-based decisions and for creating policy to manage ecosystems that need 50- and 100-year plans and not four year cycles of back and forth politicking.

  3. As a retired public land aquatic biologist, I have concluded that there is undoubtedly no more destructive force to public land stream channel stability and channel structure than domestic livestock…..almost always cattle, as well as feral horses in some cases. Riparian areas have their complexity reduced by overgrazing and thus reducing or eliminating the shrub community and favoring short rooted bluegrass. Invasive vegetation species have converted millions of acres of upland plant communities to simplified plant communities dominated by invasive plant species, including cheatgrass. Cheatgrass then serves as an explosive fuel that leads to rapidly spreading fire that destroys sagebrush communities. Then the expanded cheatgrass robs soil moisture making revegetation of shrubs, including sagebrush very difficult. Add in the wildlife impacts of tens of thousands of miles of barbed wire fences, soil compaction, nutrient enriched water pollution, and other adverse impacts for starters.

    • Greg, welcome! Your insights are most appreciated.

      You write that “that there is undoubtedly no more destructive force to public land stream channel stability and channel structure than domestic livestock.” Agreed! But what about broad scale impacts when ranchers/managers keep livestock mostly out of riparian zones? I do not have the answer, but I bet you do.

  4. Forest Service was conceived over issues of water and grazing, about as much as for timber concerns. Cattle and sheep are valued users of resources on public range. If damage is occurring, more should be done to improve those uses consistent with Forest Plan constraints.

    Not a popular opinion, but the right one; that, and I love a good steak!

    • I agree, if it’s going to happen (grazing) it should be done right. And that includes charging ranchers appropriately for the service of ecologically robust public land- and to achieve “ecologically robust” soils and grasses we would need to drastically increase fees and reduce head counts, and use the increased funding to do operations on public land that increase ecosystem health.

  5. I cannot even imagine the destruction to water/riparian that Buffalo made to the micro riparian-enviornments, Apparently they (the micro .env.) survived. I l love Buffalo, and they deserve payback., from all of us. Cattle just provide, as our society now exists ,with much needed protein. Having cattle, I hate, that they are butchered for our existence.

  6. If livestock grazing is the key to preventing wildfires why is ranch country still suffering from near daily high even extreme grassland fire danger indices? In 2012 the fast-moving Ash Creek Fire burned bridges on US212 near Ashland and Lame Deer, Montana while another blaze nearby on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, the Coal Seam Fire spread to some 700 acres.

    In 2017 wildland fires on private ranch land in southeastern Montana dwarfed those on public ground in the western part of the state. The Sartin Draw Fire near Broadus and the Battle Complex near Birney burned at least 100,000 and 185,000 acres respectively, decades of invasive grasses and poor stewardship to blame.

    Last year the nearly 50,000 acre Huff Fire burned through the white supremacist town of Jordan, known as the home of the Montana Freemen. The Bobcat fire near Roundup in Musselshell County was over 41 square miles in size.

    Republican counties throughout the High Plains where desertification driven by overgrazing and poor land management practices have turned parts of the region into scorched earth.

    Ag producers have destroyed shelter belts to plant industrial crops that deplete aquifers and now drought is blowing toxin-laden silt into downwind states. In Kansas alone recent wildfires blazed across some 400,000 acres during what meteorologists are now calling a derecho that traversed some 1500 miles beginning on the Front Range in Colorado. Record high winds fanned fires some forty miles wide consuming power lines, fences and domestic livestock.

    Herr Trump’s first Interior secretary blamed wildfires in the West on those he called “radical environmentalists” despite most acres burned occur on private ranch land in Republican counties. On the final day of Trump’s presidency his last Interior secretary even restored a grazing permit to the Hammond Ranch whose prescriptive burn escaped onto federal land. Only a tiny fraction of public lands offered by the Trump Organization to the extractive industries were even leased yet Republicans see the Biden White House as hostile to their causes especially after the Hammonds’ grazing permits were again rescinded.

    • Because the idea that livestock grazing suppresses fires is deeply flawed. There is absolutely a linear causality between grazing->less ground level fuel, but the concurrent damage to water tables, the resulting tree mortality, fuels-generating species invasions, and species-richness reducing sapling mortality (not to mention reduced/altered natural fire regimes) all contribute to higher fire danger and intensity at the landscape level. Regular burning would be more effective than livestock grazing.

  7. I would like to see a calculation of where we’d be if there was the human equivalent of AUM, like a PUD (person unit day) since 1981, because I still don’t think recreation gets taken seriously as an impact. I wonder about the biodiversity impacts of human-caused forest fires. For the past several years, I’ve been working with some public lands rancher families to see if we can’t hit some land health (mainly riparian) AND grazing productivity goals. It’s tough, but there have been some infrastructure investments that show a lot of promise for reducing creek time. Certainly the collaborative spirit we’ve built has led to more nature-considered practices. There are some things, however, that can’t be ignored. In 2019, my partners put out over 30 abandoned campfires on the allotment. Fences are cut by ATV riders, drinkers are drained, which pushes animals in the creeks. This article highlights a problem, but comes up way short in describing THE problem.

    • Absolutely, the fees and funding and policy for public land operations are completely divorced from reality. The externalities of all activity (or lack of activity- vis a vis burning and thinning) need to be quantified in an organized way. If that’s possible across the mosaic of ownership… well. We’ll see.

    • Toner.. I had never heard of people draining drinkers (!). Please consider writing a guest post on more about the way your experiences lead you to describe the problem.

  8. I have done a bit of work on grazing management over the years. Something not mentioned here already is how poorly the grazing program in the USFS is funded. There are a lot of open range con spots in the org charts. This results in routine forest plan and allotment plan violations by permittees. Not to mention, even when there is a good range con working a forest/district, the ability of the range con to correct routine violations is difficult logistically and politically.

    I fully agree there are few, if any, ecological benefits of cattle/sheep grazing in forest system and riparian areas. I often hear it suggested that cattle be used for fuels management. There is no evidence I am aware of showing cows are effective at mitigating high severity fire in forest systems. Cows are grazers, not browsers. Sure, they will nibble the ends of shrubs in the spring, but not enough to have a meaningful effect. Cows can disrupt low severity fire regimes by consuming grasses and forbs that carry low intensity fire, but the long-term cost is a buildup of seedlings/saplings and shrubs, which increased high severity fire risk.

    • Along the lines of “rewilding” it would be interesting to see projects in which large woody debris (a la Stage Zero stream restoration) is strategically placed in grazing meadows on USFS, to cause more circuitous movement of animals, create and attenuate sheetflow and provide refuge for rodents and amphibs. Contour-felling too. I agree that better funding would product better grazing results.

    • I agree about “forest systems” but in many places trees are mixed in with areas of grass or low shrubs due to soils, aspect or other factors.
      Well.. some studies show that cattle grazing reduces cheatgrass which is bad for various ecosystem things, plus can provide fuelbreaks for fire.. which can help protect sage grouse habitat. https://www.usda.gov/media/blog/2020/10/01/firefighting-cattle-targeted-grazing-makes-firebreaks-cheatgrass
      All FS land is not forest.

  9. Grazing is part of the fuels reduction equation, just as brush disposal after timber sales.

    As for private ranch lands burning, the FS has hundreds of millions of dollars in claims against them right now, due to mismanagement of Incidents and poor decisions on “let it burn” policies. I personally, having seen good range management both federally and privately, prefer the grazing program to expand. Get rid of the “bad actors”, and let the true managers do their jobs….

  10. The lightning caused Crater Ridge Fire has burned some 7000 acres on and around the Bighorn National Forest since its start July 17.

    Recall the Medicine Bow National Forest, the US Department of Agriculture and Wyoming Game & Fish have begun spraying the herbicide Rejuvra®, a Bayer CropScience indaziflam with a helicopter on cheatgrass in a 9,200 acre area within the Mullen Fire perimeter with the hopes of reducing, maybe even eradicating its presence.

    Environmental groups are pushing back on the Bighorn National Forest’s plan to spray a herbicide banned in Europe since 2002 on some 5,100 acres of native mountain big sagebrush and larkspur. The Forest Service burns about 600 acres of sagebrush in the Bighorns each year to accomodate the livestock industry. To kill invasives the Bighorn would apply imazapic and despite its ban in Europe, tebuthiuron, an indaziflam manufactured by Dow AgroSciences.

    Alternatives include no action or burning the invasives ventenata and medusahead and thinning larkspur and sagebrush without aerial spraying. Even a Wyoming Game & Fish Department habitat specialist recommends prescriptive fire instead of poisoning.

    Imagine what herbicides are doing to species like Townsend’s Big-eared bats.

  11. It’d be interesting to quantify all the extra money that gets spent to support ranching as well, the non-profit and State and Federal $s that get spent to clean up messes (fencing, weed abatement, riparian restoration) left by ranchers on public land as well.

    • I look forward to a much more nuanced discussion on multiple use, one that addresses grazing but also vehicles driving through streams (I’ve seen camp toilets in streams too), camping, urban hikers/bikers and other recreation impacts. We have a problem of A) on account of its propensity to damage, throwing every problem at the feet of grazing (thousands of vehicles may certainly carry invasive seeds too) and B) treating egregious recreation damage as one offs and not epidemic, and amazingly, not significantly impactful on species and habitat.

  12. Remember the NFMA requirement for ecological sustainability, based on the natural range of variation for vegetation? There’s nothing in the Planning Rule that exempts non-forest vegetation or riparian areas.

    Of course, bison played a role in achieving that range of variation historically, but livestock grazing habits are not the same as for bison. I think most of the difference is that livestock stay in the same place much longer, producing a long-term constant disturbance instead of the “pulse” disturbances that range and aquatic systems evolved with.

    • And/but livestock stay in the same place as dictated by seasonal grazing plans. With adequate human/financial resources, grazing systems could be shaped into a bison model or, in the mountains, an elk one (though I’ve seen elk do some serious ripping/compacting in their own right, but that could be a matter for Game and Fish).

    • So the results of the 2012 NFMA regulation would be to stop one of the MUSYA uses? Guess that one would be for lawyers to puzzle over.

      • Sharon, Jon’s point is keyed to NFMAs requirement for “sustainability”, not an call for the end to public land grazing. Frankly when vegetative communities are changed radically due to invasive species facilitated by inappropriate grazing, and riparian/stream functions are reduced by grazing damage those landscapes could not be considered to be sustainable IMO. Ecosystems already stressed by climate change don’t need another major stressor in the name of inappropriate grazing. The dismal economics of public land grazing and the adverse environmental effects would indicate sound rationale for major changes on how grazing occurs on public lands. While public expenditures for other management for public land benefits seem worthwhile, grazing begs for similar public benefits. Something like 4% of cattle in the US ever touch public lands, so basically the public is subsidizing 4% of livestock producers of which the other 96% have to compete.

        • The public – or the folks camping at fee sites or buy hunting and fishing licenses – is subsidizing so many folks who pay absolutely nothing to use public lands that they impact. At this time when user-created campsites are compacted to dust, trails are get wider and wider from people avoiding mud or ruts in the middle, and more and more humans concentrate where wild animals prefer to rest or water, the narrative needs to be renovated. It’s become less helpful as land use has changed (broader use of ORVs, for example). Often out of necessity, cattle drinkers must be used by wildlife trying to avoid humans. Feral horses and cattle continue to be unaccounted for, along with over-sized elk populations. It’s not all about the cattle anymore.

  13. I’m ok with cattle. I like Costco beef better than elk. I’m ok with ranchers too. Good bunch if I had to make a generalization. Our public lands don’t need to make a profit, some of the resources are there to be used, that includes ranching. I just have one beef (little pun), I don’t like ranchers using public lands when they themselves block other user groups from accessing those same lands because they are either landlocked within private holdings, or the walk around is way too far.

    Corner crossing needs to be legal everywhere. Back Country Catch and Releasers has a law suit in Wyoming over just this issue.

    Finished on corn is best.

  14. Som-sai, I think I agree with you but with one exception; I like grass finished better than corn. Lower fat content and better bang for the buck in processing. I/we sell processed beef directly to customers (whole or half) and it is some of the best stuff since stuff started….🤣

    Rock on!

  15. Now if you go on wildlife preserves here in North Dakota they pay ranchers to run their cattle on the preserves to treat it like it used to be when bison did the grazing!


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