Wild Horse Education

Grazing Fees Remain Low, Everything Else Rises

Somedays we play “where are the cows?’ Sometimes where they should be, sometimes where they are not supposed to be.

As everyone faces fluctuating and rising prices on everything from rent to food, it is worth noting that public lands grazing fees have been set at the same rate as last year, the lowest rate allowed under law, $1.35 per Animal Unit Month (AUM). An AUM is the amount of food needed for one cow/calf pair, five sheep or one horse per month.

In other words, somehow the federal system has (once again) determined that these animals can eat for a month for less than the price of a single can of dog food. (Before anyone says “But they feed the masses!” No, they don’t. Less than 3% of meat comes from public lands grazing.)

Congress established the formula used for calculating grazing fees in the 1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) and amended the formula in the 1978 Public Rangelands Improvement Act (PRIA).

The law requires the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior to set a fee annually. The fee is to represent the fair market value of grazing, beginning with a 1966 base value of $1.23 per AUM. This value is adjusted for three factors based on costs in western states of (1) the rental charge for pasturing cattle on private rangelands, (2) the sales price of beef cattle, and (3) the cost of livestock production. After a trial run on the fee system, the Public Rangelands Improvement Act (PRIA) established the minimum fee at $1.35 per AUM by 1982.

Congress also established that the annual fee adjustment could not exceed 25% of the previous year’s fee. So the maximum increase to the fee could be to raise it to $1.68

There is no such “maximum increase limit” on anything else. 

In fact, camping fees on public lands have risen. The cost of hiring an employee to do things like collect fees and clean has risen, so the fee rises. As an example fees for BLM campgrounds in Elko, NV, have risen from 40% to nearly 60% this year. Fees for more popular campgrounds have risen even more over the last couple of years.

Sunset, public land in NV.

Why are grazing fees going down and things like camping going up? In a word, contradiction.

When it comes to recreation, it is recognized that we need limitations placed on the impacts of humans to the natural environment. In addition, tax-payer funding is extremely limited to subsidize recreation. Raising fees can pay for upkeep and limit use.

When it comes to livestock, there is barely any indication that the federal land management agencies even recognize the word “limitations on impacts” when it comes to privately owned cows and sheep on public lands. In addition, there seems to be no limitations on the amount of tax-payer funds that will be used to prop up livestock.

Did you know that the fee for grazing does not even cover the cost of monitoring and issuing the paperwork for a permit? In addition, the federal government will pay a rancher for any cow hit on the road or killed by a predator. They also pay out money when there is drought (for hauling water, the ability to run fewer cows) and even in hard winters to off-set the cost of feed. Right now in NV ranchers are asking for money to subsidize feed because we are having a (closer to normal) “hard winter”? It should be noted that less than 3% of beef comes from all of public land livestock operations in the West and one casino in Vegas can employ more people than the entire livestock industry in the West. 

Livestock AUM Fee Table, GOA 2019 report

There have been several attempts to begin a slow rise of federal grazing fees that are always a political issue (not an actual discussion based on market values). Politics always turns the fees back on a downward trend.

There have been many attempts to reform the fee program. Politics always gets in the way.

For comparison with the chart above, the average monthly lease rate for lands in 16 western states was $23.40 per head on private lands in 2017.

Often the politically driven argument claiming that private land fees cannot be compared to public lands is that the quality of grazing land is better on private land. In our opinion this constant deflection is not relevant, the amount they eat is the amount they eat. If public land is so bad, and the forage quality so low, then why are we propping up the continuation of the industry through massive subsidies while it damages fragile landscapes (that only produce poor forage)?

You can learn more in the Government Accounting Office (GAO) report of 2019 about the fee schedule and history of attempts it reform HERE. 

Wild horses in holding after being removed from a public lands grazing allotment that is located inside a Herd Management Area (HMA) in NV

A grazing lease cannot be retired without an act of Congress. Currently, environmental groups are allowed to purchase grazing permits from ranchers, but they cannot retire them without Congressional authorization. Simplistically, if a rancher decides the land is poor and his business is not sustainable, he can’t even sell the lease to retire the land (and obtain funding to start somewhere else) without getting Congress involved; if he simply says his lease isn’t working, federal agencies are required to offer it to someone else.

The Federal Grazing Retirement Act of 2020 : The Act would allow permit holders on any federal lands managed by the Department of Agriculture and Department of Interior in 16 Western States (Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming) the option to voluntarily waive their permits to graze on federal lands in exchange for market value compensation paid by private parties.

The Act was one of many over the years that did not make it out of Congress before the session expired.

Legislation has not been introduced this session to reform the grazing program, fee schedule, etc.

Note: No, the public cannot simply buy AUMs or permits for wild horses or wildlife either. We should not have to. Like the grass eaten, wild horses and wildlife are a resource. Resources are supposed to be protected from “too much” industry.

Wild horses being removed from a grazing allotment on public lands managed by BLM California

Wild horses and burros are a public lands resource.

Understanding the layers of how the public land pieces come together is important.

The same people fighting to keep grazing fees on your public lands at the same rate as they were at the beginning of the program are the same people pushing removals of wild horse and burros to historic highs the last few years.

Perspective is important. Not only does public lands livestock get to graze at 1980’s prices, a large portion of the fees they pay are required to be used for range improvements like seeding and water pipelines to expand livestock use.

For wild horses and burros all we see is more fragmentation of their habitat, plans to “zero out” more herds, failures to care for them during capture and in holding, increases in branded mustangs in the slaughter pipeline.

Livestock always appears in the “give me” column and wild horses and burros in the “take away.”

We hope this article helps you get a bit more perspective on your public lands.

To see how private livestock use overlaps wild horse HMAs, you can see an example at the Pancake Complex HERE.

Help keep us in the fight.



Categories: Wild Horse Education