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Study affirms role of grazing on public land

Written by Saige Albert

On Feb. 22, the Coalition for Self-Government in the West (CSGW) released their newest study, which looks inside the rate that grazing across Bureau of Land Management Land (BLM) 11 western states has declined.

Matthew Anderson, policy analyst with CSGW, commented, “The cowboy is a quintessential part of American heritage. Today, this fixture of western culture is under attack, and at the rate we’re going, it won’t be long until he becomes just another chapter in history.”

In CSGW’s recent study, titled Dusty Trails: The Erosion of Grazing in the American West, Anderson and others assert that grazing has declined, which threatens the heritage of the West.

“From 1949 to 2014, the average number of grazing district Animal Unit Months (AUMs) – a measurement that takes into account both the number of livestock and the time they spend on public lands – that were approved by the BLM plunged from 14,572,272 to 7,160,432,” said the report. “Some states have seen a drop-off of more than 70 percent.”

However, the study also recognizes that during the same time, the number of operators and permittees has also declined from more than 21,000 to just over 10,100.

“Such a sharp decline not only impacts ranchers’ way of life but has a profound and lasting effect on taxpayers, local economies and the environment,” the report added.

Anderson said, “The disappearance of ranchers means much more than the loss of a cultural icon.”

Analysis of impacts

The study noted that historically, public lands in the West, both U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and BLM lands, have traditionally been managed as multiple-use, and they comprise over one-fifth of the lands in the West. 

While still charged with a multiple use mandated, Dusty Trails said that use of public lands for grazing has decreased sharply, which causes resounding impacts.

“BLM and USFS has enormous potential to generate revenue for public good,” it reads. “However, these federal agencies on average lose taxpayers nearly $2 billion each year – with grazing losses accounting for a substantial portion of this shortfall.”

The report summarizing that, from 2009-13, BLM and USFS spent an average of $9.41 per AUM, while state trust lands in Arizona, Idaho, Montana and New Mexico spent $2.30 per AUM. The average return per AUM on federal land was only $1.18 compared to state returns of $7.79.

“While states often charge higher prices for grazing than the federal government, their policies actually encourage public grazing opportunities,” said Dusty Trails.

In Wyoming, there were 1,372 operators, permits or leases in 1949, compared to just 987 in 2014, a decrease of 28.06 percent.

However, the decrease in the number of AUMs over the same time period was 56.25 percent, from 1.9 million AUMs in 1949 to 848,000 in 2014.

Colorado saw a 56.68 percent decrease in operators, permits or leases and a 71.2 percent reduction decrease in AUMs, while Montana experienced an 18.36 percent decrease in operators and a 9.7 percent increase in AUMs.

Montana is the only western state to see an increase in AUMs.

Rangeland impacts

As an example of the negative impacts that occur when lands aren’t grazing, the report compared western rangelands to a lawn.

“Like a lawn, which needs trimming and mowing, rangelands need attention, or they die,” the study commented. “Harvesting the annual renewing forage on our public lands maintains the health and vitality of these ecosystems by reducing fuel loads that can lead to catastrophic wildfires.”

Dusty Trails continues that ranchers are “a vital piece of the rangeland puzzle.”

“It would be almost impossible to quantify how many watersheds, how much wildlife and how many acres of vital habitat these volunteers have saved over the years,” the study read. “The continued decline of grazing operators and permittees has serious implications for the environment.”

With the decline of ranchers, Anderson asserted that rangeland quality and health will similarly decline.

“There is no denying that market forces, such as the decline of America’s sheep industry, have played a role in the decrease of grazing on federal lands,” Anderson said. “However, instead of mitigating these effects, unresponsive federal policies are making life more difficult for rural Americans, adding insult to injury.”

Moving forward

“It’s time to undo decades worth of harmful management practices and bring grazing back to our public lands,” Anderson commented.

Dusty Trails continued that moving forward, states have begun to take things into their own hands.

“Utah has passed and many western states are considering legislation calling on the federal government to honor the promise it made upon statehood and turn over multiple use public lands to the state’s care,” the study said. “Western states are well-equipped to managed these lands and have already demonstrated the ability to balance conservation, recreation and economic interests.”

Anderson emphasized, “The Coalition for Self-Government in the West urges our Legislature, Congress, federal land management agencies and the President to take actions and once again reinstate grazing as an integral part of public lands management.”

Saige Albert, managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup, compiled this article from several sources. Send comments to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..