Call to Cut Subsidized Grazing on Public Lands

cows grazing on public lands

Update March 1, 2011: The case discussed in Animal Law Coalition’s original report below has been dismissed pursuant to a settlement agreement. The government agencies agreed to respond finally to Plaintiffs’ petition. 

Original report: A number of conservation organizations have called on President Barack Obama to eliminate or at least reform the program that subsidizes livestock grazing on public lands.

The Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service which manage the public lands, currently charge only $1.35 per cow and calf for grazing on public lands. That translates to an astonishing taxpayer subsidy of  "$132 million each year, and independent economists have estimated the true cost at between $500 million and $1 billion dollars a year."  This even though livestock grazing on public lands provides only 3% of beef produced in the U.S. More than that, the artificially low fee in no way provides the revenue necessary to take steps to mitigate the damage and restore the ecosystems of public lands destroyed as a result of livestock grazing. 

The conservation groups also say the program "incentivizes destructive grazing practices".

Pres. Obama has asked for a 5% cut from federal agencies’ budgets. Eliminating livestock grazing or substantially raising fees would reduce the budget of BLM by at least 5% and that of the U.S. Forest Service by more than 1%. The conservation groups told the president, "The Government Accountability Office reported in 2005 that the BLM loses $46.5 million every year administering its grazing program. This is equal to 5 percent of the agency’s 2011 budget request. The Forest Service loses at least $69.5 million dollars a year on its grazing program. This is more than 1 percent of its 2011 budget request."

The groups, Center for Biological Diversity, Western Watersheds Project, WildEarth Guardians, Oregon Natural Resources Council, and Great Old Broads for Wilderness have also filed a lawsuit in the federal court in Washington, D.C. against these agencies as well as the Departments of Interior which houses the BLM and Agriculture which oversees the U.S. Forest Service.  

NEPA claims

The plaintiffs allege in their Complaint that the U.S. government agencies have failed to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act ("NEPA"), 42 U.S.C. § 4331, et seq., "in establishing and annually determining the livestock grazing fee on public lands managed by the BLM and Forest Service." The BLM and U.S. Forest Service are required by NEPA to prepare Environmental Assessments or EAs or, if indicated, Environmental Impact Statements (EIS) or Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI), for any proposed changes to public lands that may have a significant environmental impact.  The law directs the agency to identify environmental concerns, consider alternatives including no action at all and take a "hard look" at the problem and minimize significant environmental impact. A significant environmental impact includes actions that are likely to be highly controversial or have uncertain effects on the quality of our lives and that affect cultural and historical resources. 40 C.F.R. §1508.27(b).

The last EA prepared in setting grazing fees was in 1988. The plaintiffs explain, "[The government is] required to supplement the 1988 EAs due to significant new information and circumstances." See 40 C.F.R. § 1502.9(c). But the defendants have failed to do so. Instead, say plaintiffs, "Defendants annually set the grazing fee for public lands managed by the BLM and Forest Service, including on January 29, 2010 for the year 2010, without preparing any analysis of the environmental impacts, in violation of NEPA."

The effect of livestock grazing on wildlife and their habitat

Livestock grazing is one of the largest uses of the public lands by these federal agencies. According to plaintiffs, "Approximately 22,000 ranchers graze livestock on public lands managed by the BLM and Forest Service. The permits for the 2000 largest permit holders account for approximately two-thirds of all the livestock grazing on these public lands.

"In 2005, the GAO issued a report on livestock grazing entitled Federal Expenditures Vary, Depending on the Agency and the Purpose of the Fee Charged" GAO found that the grazing fee that the BLM and Forest Service charge, which was $1.43 per animal unit month in 2004, is generally much lower than the fees charged by the other federal agencies, states, and private ranchers. The BLM and Forest Service grazing fee decreased by 40 percent from 1980 to 2004, while grazing fees charged by private ranchers increased by 78 percent for the same period. If the purpose of the grazing fee was to recover expenditures, the BLM and Forest Service would have had to charge $7.64 and $12.26 per animal unit month, respectively."

According to the plaintiffs the environmental impacts of livestock grazing on public lands include "reduced tree and plant cover, reduced native species diversity, wider stream channels, unstable stream banks, higher peak water flows, reduced soil fertility, increased erosion, high water temperatures, increased sedimentation and nutrients in streams, and adverse impacts to riparian and aquatic species. Livestock grazing has long-term adverse impacts on watersheds, including the trampling and loss of stabilizing vegetation from stream banks, channel scouring, and erosion. Livestock grazing has long-term adverse impacts on upland areas, including soil erosion and compaction, and the destruction of stabilizing microbiological soil crusts. Eroding soil and manure associated with livestock grazing on public lands often ends up in streams, increasing sediment load, excessive nutrients, and pathogen contamination. Vegetation in the west has been significantly impacted by livestock grazing on public lands, including broad-scale impacts to native grasslands and sage brush habitat. Livestock grazing is identified as a factor in the listing of numerous species on public lands managed by the BLM and Forest Service as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act."

Livestock grazing is also a significant factor in BLM’s decisions to remove wild horses and burros from public lands. In recent years BLM has stepped up roundups and removal of wild horses and burros from public lands in favor of livestock grazing despite a federal law that tasks the agency with protecting these animals on public lands!

The Complaint filed by plaintiffs notes, "A typical grass-fed cow produces 600-700 liters of methane per day. This equates to approximately 175,663,860 kg of methane per year for all cattle grazed on public lands managed by the BLM and Forest Service. Methane is a greenhouse gas like carbon dioxide. The effect on the climate from methane is 23 times higher than the effect of carbon dioxide. The release of methane released annually by cattle grazing on public lands managed by the BLM and Forest Service is equivalent to the carbon dioxide emissions from 705,342 passenger vehicles, or 8,578,933 barrels of oil consumed."

BLM and U.S. Forest Service failed to respond to a previous request to change the fee structure for the livestock grazing program 

In 2005 these same conservation groups submitted a petition to the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior, pursuant to the Administrative Procedure Act. The plaintiffs basically requested the "Secretaries to initiate rulemaking to amend the grazing fee regulations, pursuant to the APA, to establish a fair and just fee for livestock grazing on certain federal lands in the sixteen western states and …regulations to ensure that the Forest Service and BLM grazing programs are self-sustaining." The agencies did not respond and instead continued to use a formula set in 1988 to determine grazing fees. This despite the continued decline of federal rangelands and more and more species listed as threatened or endangered as a result of livestock grazing. Not to mention the stepped up roundups of wild horses and burros from public lands to make way for more livestock.

"In the spring of 2010, without any explanation, Petitioners were informed by BLM that any response to the 2005 Petition was a very low priority."

Plaintiffs claim in their lawsuit that the government’s failure to respond to the 2005 petition is a violation of APA. "The APA requires agencies to give interested persons the right to petition for the issuance, amendment, or repeal of a rule. 5 U.S.C. § 553(e). Agencies are required to conclude matters presented to the agency within a reasonable time. 5 U.S.C. § 555(b). Federal regulations state that any person may petition for the issuance, amendment, or repeal of a rule pursuant to the APA, 5 U.S.C. § 553(e), and that the petition "will be given prompt consideration and the petition will be notified promptly of action taken." 43 C.F.R. § 14.1-4; 7 C.F.R. § 1.28.


In their lawsuit Plaintiffs have asked the Court to require the government to comply with APA and NEPA. But as plaintiffs indicated in their letter to Pres. Obama, it’s time to end or substantially reduce taxpayer subsidized grazing permits on public lands by eliminating or at least reforming the livestock grazing program. Maybe seen as a budget cutting measure, it won’t have such a low priority with this administration.

Call on Pres. Obama to end the livestock grazing program. Here’s his number: