October 25, 2002


Kieran Suckling, Executive Director, Center for Biological Diversity, 520-275-5960
Andy Kerr, Director, National Public Lands Grazing Campaign, 503-701-6298
Jon Marvel, Executive Director, Western Watersheds Project, 208-788-2290
Karyn Moskowitz, University of Kentucky, 859-257-4852
Chuck Romaniello, Bureau of Land Management (Colorado), 303-278-4058 (after 5:30 p.m. weekdays)

Federal Grazing Program Costs Taxpayers $500 Million to $1 Billion

Americans pay between $500 million and $1 billion annually in taxes to subsidize cattle grazing on federal public lands across the West, a new study shows.

In their study, "Assessing the Full Cost of the Federal Grazing Program," Rockefeller Fellow Karyn Moskowitz and Bureau of Land Management economist Chuck Romaniello document the vast subsidies that support livestock grazing on public lands by 23,600 federal permittees in the western United States.

"Taking into account the many direct and indirect federal expenditures that benefit or compensate for impacts of livestock grazing on federal lands, the full cost of the federal grazing program to the U.S. Treasury is likely to approximate $500 million annually," Moskowitz and Romaniello note in their report. "Considering the many other indirect costs . . . due to resource damage and impaired opportunities for recreation and other non-commercial land uses, the full cost to the U.S. public could approach $1 billion annually."

The study was commissioned by the Center for Biological Diversity and five other conservation groups representing the National Public Lands Grazing Campaign.

"The lack of transparent accounting was the most frustrating thing," said Moskowitz, a Rockefeller Fellow at the University of Kentucky. "It was difficult to get a clear idea of just how much money the government is pumping into the federal grazing program to keep it going."

Romaniello, an agricultural economist for the BLM in Colorado, said range management programs administered by the BLM and U.S. Forest Service, which alone lose more than $100 million, are "just the tip of the iceberg."

"Numerous programs both in and outside the two agencies also bear costs related to the grazing program," he said. "We could find no system that adequately accounts for all of these costs."

Among these costs are compensation or mitigation for damages to public resources, wildlife, watersheds and human health by livestock on public lands.

Taxpayers pay to restore streams fouled by cattle; to fence public campsites and archaeological sites; to filter out giardia and other parasites that end up in city water supplies from cattle. They also pay when government trappers kill mountain lions, coyotes and other predators that threaten cows on the public range.

The NPLGC groups commissioned the study to get an objective, updated summary of the costs to the public -- and harm to the environment -- of the federal livestock grazing program.

The NPLGC seeks to end the federal subsidy system through a voluntary federal buyout program that would compensate ranchers who relinquish their public lands grazing permits. The plan is endorsed by more than 120 groups nationwide and supported by many ranchers.

The NPLGC proposal would compensate federal grazing permittees at $175 per animal unit month, or AUM, a rate four times market value. The buyout program would cost $3.3 billion but provide a savings of between $5.7 billion and $9.9 billion.

"There could be one last subsidy to end all future subsidies," said NPLGC director Andy Kerr. "If we pay ranchers to let go of their permits, we estimate we would recoup the investment in about seven years."

The Forest Service and BLM combined manage about 320 million acres of public lands in the western United States. About 258 million acres, or 81 percent, are grazed by privately owned livestock.

"The agencies have known for years that the grazing fee formula is mathematically flawed," said Suckling. "The formula keeps the monthly grazing fee at about five time less than the cost to feed a domestic pet for a month."

Many ranchers and industry supporters contend their operations are in jeopardy even under the current subsidy system. Yet, more than 50 percent of all public lands ranchers produce cattle as a second occupation, and federal grazing subsidies are held by corporations such as Anheuser Busch and billionaires such as Idaho's J.R. Simplot.

Public lands ranching west of the Mississippi River produces less than 3 percent of America's beef.

"Even raising the grazing fee to market levels will not cover the real cost of livestock production on public lands," said George Wuerthner, co-editor with Mollie Matteson of a new book, Welfare Ranching: The Subsidized Destruction of the American West. "If we did a full accounting of the ecological costs -- soil erosion, extirpation of predators, water pollution, endangered species, spread of weeds, dewatering of rivers for irrigated pasture -- the price we pay annually to sustain this 19th century relic would be in the billions of dollars."