Many years ago, when we were renting a house in a town outside of Seattle,…
Debbie Schlenoff 541.685.0610 dschlenoff (at) msn.com
The federal government grants grazing permits to allow ranchers to graze their livestock on public lands. It’s difficult to see how grazing cattle on public lands contributes to our nation’s defense, yet this year’s defense bill, the National Defense Authorization Act (NEPA), included the Grazing Improvement Act. (The only connection between grazing and defense I could find browsing the web is that, apparently, the British used COW guns on some armored vehicles. Is there nothing an Internet search can’t tell you?) This new bill uses language that, among other things, significantly extends the length of time that a grazing permit is valid, limits environmental review (in some cases, even exempting permitting from the National Environmental Policy Act), and fast-tracks close to 6,000 backlogged grazing permits now awaiting consideration. Currently, the Bureau of Land Management has granted over 18,000 permits on about 155 million acres of land.
An economic perspective: A robust land-management program could commit adequate revenue toward improving current grazing practices with special attention to water, vegetation, and soil protection. Is the federal land program self-supporting? The grazing fee is $1.35 per animal per unit month (AUM) and the amount that it can increase or decrease is limited by law. This fee is less than 7% of the going rate for grazing on private land, which is around $20.10 per AUM. The program cost (for management programs and limited range improvement funds) was $143.6 million in fiscal year 2014, while the receipts from grazing fees came to $18.5 million, a $125 million shortfall. This is not an anomaly; costs have exceeded gains by a minimum of $120 million annually since 2002.
Is it worth it? Most analysts estimate that less than 3% of the country’s livestock operators benefit from this subsidy and the number of jobs generated is extremely small. Indirect costs are substantial. To reduce risk to livestock, federal agencies such as the US Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services require funding to kill thousands of native carnivores annually. Programs such as the Wild Horse and Burro Management Program remove competitors. Vegetation and watershed programs spend money to deal with degradation that results from grazing activities. The US Fish and Wildlife Service must spend money to protect the many species that are threatened by livestock grazing. Even more difficult to measure is the loss of species and ecosystem services that results from habitat degradation.
An environmental perspective: The list of harmful effects on the environment caused by grazing is long. Among the worst are soil compaction, soil erosion, loss of native vegetation, introduction of invasive plants, wildfire suppression, and water quality degradation. The predator removal programs associated with the public lands grazing program kill bears, wolves, coyotes, and cougars; the loss of these top predators leads to detrimental cascading effects throughout the food web.
Significant destruction of habitat threatens many species, including avian species. Although some birds may respond positively to the environment associated with grazing (think of their historical association with bison on the plains), others that rely on ground cover or streamside vegetation are significantly affected. The denuding and height reduction that results from grazing as well as the changes in riparian vegetation make birds more susceptible to predators and less likely to successfully nest. The list from various studies of affected species includes Sandhill Crane, Western Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Southwest Willow Flycatcher, Sharp-tailed Grouse, Ferruginous Hawk, Burrowing Owl, Mountain Quail, Le Conte’s Sparrow, Bell’s Vireo, and Greater Sage-Grouse.
Some conservationists predict that further harm will come from the relaxation of environmental standards emphasized in the latest public lands grazing act. Since this law allows grazing licenses to be issued before completion of environmental review through NEPA, the door is open to further streamline federal approval of oil and gas leases. Is it any wonder that in addition to organizations such as the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the bill was supported by America’s Natural Gas Alliance, United States Oil & Gas Association, Independent Petroleum Association of America, and similar groups? Public lands should be for the benefit of the public. The idea of granting permits and leases for a few people to make a profit while destroying the benefits of the environment for all seems indefensible to me.