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  Grazing Factsheets

  Cattle severely degrade a riparian area in the Sagebrush Sea. Oregon Natural Desert Association
  Livestock have degraded this riparian zone and trampled the creek bed, resulting in extreme downcutting and soil erosion. Katie Fite, Western Watersheds Project
  Livestock have so denuded this stream as to reduce it to a ditch. Katie Fite, Western Watersheds Project
  Billionaire J.R. Simplot was a public lands rancher. Katie Fite, Western Watersheds Project
  Sierra Club founder John Muir called domestic sheep "hoofed locusts." USDA, Agricultural Research Service
  Livestock trample and consume native plants, destroy soil crust, increase soil erosion and spread invasive species on the Sagebrush Sea uplands. Photos.com (paid subscription)
  Dead cow in watering hole. Western Watersheds Project
The BLM administered approximately 18,000 grazing permits and leases to graze almost 13 million AUMs (animal unit months) on 165 million acres of public lands in 2006, primarily in the Sagebrush Sea. More than 99 percent of remaining sagebrush steppe has been affected by livestock and approximately 30 percent has been heavily grazed. The BLM grazing program is administered by 107 field offices that spend at least $58 million annually to manage public lands grazing, at a loss of at least $54.6 million per year to federal taxpayers. Archeological and palynological (pollen, spores) evidence indicates that the introduction of domestic livestock had more effect on the Great Basin than any event in the previous 1,000 years.

Environmental Impacts. Field study, photographic evidence and significant scientific literature describe the many, pervasive impacts of domestic livestock grazing on the environment. Livestock grazing is a factor in the decline of 22 percent of all species - and 33 percent of plant species - on the federal threatened and endangered species list. For comparison, listed species affected by logging and mining are 12 percent and 11 percent, respectively. Domestic livestock directly compete with native ungulates - buffalo, elk, deer, pronghorn and bighorn sheep - for forage and water resources, and livestock production despoils habitat for many other fish and wildlife, including greater and Gunnison sage grouse, songbirds, and myriad native trout species. Public lands livestock grazing is the single greatest impediment to wolf and grizzly reintroduction and dispersal in the Intermountain West. Livestock grazing has damaged 80 percent of all streams and river ecosystems in the arid West. While riparian zones comprise represent less than 1 percent of the surface area of federally owned western public lands, they are critically important to 80 percent of wildlife species in the West. Nearly all surface waters in the West are fouled by livestock waste that produces harmful water-borne bacteria and protozoa.

Economic Contributions. Domestic livestock graze more than 400,000 square miles of federal public lands. Yet, one cow and calf require an average of 13 acres per month to sustain themselves on arid public lands in Nevada. By comparison, only 2 acres of private farmland in the East are required to feed a cow/calf per year. As much as 81 percent of the nation's livestock forage grows east of the Mississippi River. Forty-nine percent of the contiguous United States is dedicated to livestock production. Federal public lands comprise 28 percent of this dedicated land area, but provide only 2 percent of the nation's total livestock feed. Contributions by public lands grazing to state and local economies are miniscule. The feed and beef provided from public lands can be replaced through less damaging means by increasing production in less fragile environments.

Fiscal Impacts. According to the Government Accountability Office, the net annual direct and indirect cost of the federal grazing program is at least $144 million. However, indirect costs not counted by the GAO double or triple this amount. Federal grazing permittees/lessees pay only $1.34 per AUM to graze federal public lands (a house cat, gerbil or goldfish costs more to feed), while the average fee on western state and private lands is $12.30 and $12.50, respectively. Even worse for taxpayers, most of the $1.34 fee is not deposited to the general treasury, but used to further subsidize livestock grazing by way of the Range Betterment Fund. Approximately $8 million is returned to the U.S. Treasury annually.

Social Impacts. For many federal grazing permittees/lessees, public lands grazing is more a chosen lifestyle than a rational economic activity. It is cherished by an aging population of livestock operators, half of whom are classified as "hobby ranchers." Most children of public lands ranchers do not want or cannot afford to continue their family tradition. The capital value of federal grazing permits has declined in real value over the past decades, while ranching costs have increased. The result is that these permittees/lessees (and often the banks that loaned them money using their federal grazing permits/leases as collateral) have stranded investments in public lands ranching that are shrinking in value and worth little for retirement or devising to their heirs. In the meantime, foreign beef imports, domestic markets, changes in livestock production, drought, increased enforcement of environmental laws and other factors have combined to make public lands livestock grazing a precarious economic activity. Even as the market declines, labor costs will increase for livestock operators as federal land managers - either on their own or as required by federal courts - impose additional restrictions on public lands grazing intended to curtail environmental damage caused by livestock (shorter grazing seasons, fewer animals, more intensive herding). What is already an unprofitable occupation, though perhaps an enjoyable lifestyle, is fast becoming an untenable one.

Solution: Voluntary Grazing Permit Retirement. Compensating federal grazing permittees to end their grazing on public lands is ecologically imperative, economically rational, fiscally prudent, socially just and politically pragmatic. Voluntary grazing permit retirement is an equitable way to resolve long-standing conflicts between domestic livestock grazing and environmental protection, recreation and other legitimate uses of public lands. Voluntary grazing permit retirement programs are also acknowledgement that federal policy concerning public lands grazing has changed and will likely continue to change, making public lands grazing even more problematic in the future. Compensation paid to participating ranchers would also contribute to the recapitalization of rural western economies that have otherwise been left behind by globalization, economic concentration, evolving land uses and other factors.

Additional information and references for information and statistics cited above are available in the Sagebrush Sea Factsheet and the National Public Lands Grazing Campaign website.
Factsheet: Ecological Impacts of Federal Public Lands Livestock Grazing
Factsheet: Economic Contributions of Federal Public Lands Livestock Grazing
Factsheet: Fiscal Costs of Federal Public Lands Livestock Grazing
Factsheet: The Benefits of Federal Grazing Permit Retirement
Domestic livestock compete with and displace native ungulates. Photos.com (subscription)