Welfare Ranching: The Subsidized Destruction of the American West

Ranching Myths

MYTH

Public Lands Grazing Supports the Family Rancher

TRUTH

Cowboys herding cattle.

Public lands grazing subsidies, like most agricultural subsidies, disproportionately benefit large landholders. In a 1992 Government Accounting Office profile of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) permittees, the largest 500 permittees, out of nearly 20,000 total, controlled 36 percent of the public lands forage. Just 16 percent of all permittees controlled 76.2 percent of the AUMs (animal unit months-one AUM being the amount of forage required by a cow-calf pair for a month) available on BLM lands. Most of these permittees were big corporations or very wealthy individuals. The smallest 2,000 permittees controlled less than 0.13 percent of BLM forage.

This inequality is a result of the process for assigning public lands allotments. Access to permits requires ownership of private base operations. Since wealthy ranchers own more land, and thus more base property, they wind up with more federal lands allotments.

In addition, few ranchers depend entirely on their public lands allotments to meet all their forage needs. Although the percentage varies from operation to operation and state to state, most ranchers fulfill the majority of their annual forage needs from private lands. Only the largest operations actually use public lands for a significant amount of their livestock's forage. If the public lands were to become unavailable to these large ranches, most of their operators could reasonably afford alternatives for grazing their stock.

Alternatively, most smaller ranches today represent status or lifestyle choices for their owners-the vast majority of ranchers who use public lands. Most western ranches do not depend exclusively on livestock for their income, or for even an important fraction of their income. Growing and selling livestock is usually a break-even enterprise at best. Jobs in town or other business ventures are what allow families to maintain their status and appearance as "ranchers"-not running cattle or sheep on the range. If these ranchers chose to give up, or were forced to relinquish, their public lands allotments, most would adjust through reducing their herd size to match their private holdings, or through leasing the private grazing lands of other landowners. Family ranchers might also continue to diversify their income-as many are already doing-either with new enterprises on the ranch (for example, guest ranches, and guided fishing and hunting), or with other work off the ranch.