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This Year's Public Land Grazing Fee a Bargain, Continuing a 30-Year Trend

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Cattle grazing on the Nevada range | Photo: ncreedplayer/Flickr/Creative Commons License

A dollar thirty five doesn't buy a whole lot of grub these days. You can get a small fast food meal if you order from the place's dollar menu, and you might be able to find a gas station sandwich if you shop around. Feeding your domesticated animals isn't a whole lot cheaper: Two cans of cat or dog food will come in under $1.35, three cans if you buy in bulk.

But if you're trying to feed livestock on public lands, maintained and administered at taxpayer expense, there's good news: $1.35 will still buy you a month's worth of food for your critters. Quite a bargain.

That's the price the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service have announced for their grazing fees in 2014, and it hasn't risen in the past eight years. In fact, it's been largely unchanged since 1978.

In addition to California, the 2014 grazing fee applies to animals grazed on BLM and USFS land in 15 other states, most in The West. Cattle grazed on public land in these states accounts for less than five percent of American beef production.

USFS and BLM implement the fee differently. On lands administered by the former, that $1.35 is assessed per head. On the latter's lands, the $1.35 grazing fee is charged for an "animal unit month (AUM)," defined as one month's worth of chow for a cow and her calf, or five sheep or goats.

Wildlife advocates have long criticized the low price for grazing fees on public lands, calling it an effective subsidy to a fraction of the ranching industry. Generally, grazing fees returns only a fraction of the money the Federal government spends to manage public lands grazing: less than a sixth in 2004, according to the General Accounting Office (GAO). It's probably returning less than that now: costs have risen, while 2004's grazing fee was set at $1.43, equivalent to $1.80 in February 2014 after correcting for inflation.

And that doesn't count the hard-to-quantify costs of diverting vegetation on public lands from wildlife to domestic livestock, as well as the inevitable effects on wetlands and other features of the landscape. Cattle grazing can alter vegetation to the detriment of declining species such as sage grouse and desert tortoise, and public lands sheep have been implicated as a disease source in recent deaths of desert bighorn sheep from pneumonia.

It also doesn't count the cost of running Wildlife Services, the controversial federal agency within the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In western states with lots of public land, the bulk of Wildlife Services' activities involve killing predators deemed to pose an economic threat to ranchers.

Public lands grazing fees are set according to a formula Congress enacted in the 1978 Public Rangelands Improvement Act, and reaffirmed in a Executive Order signed by President Reagan in 1986. Raising the fee has been a long-time goal of many wildlife activists, but it's a bit of a third rail in Western politics.

In 1993, the Bureau of Land Management moved to raise the fee to just under $4.00 per month, effectively doubling it from current rates. The storm of controversy that followed is widely regarded as having prompted the firing of then-BLM Director Jim Baca in February 1994 after less than a year on the job. Within two years after Baca's ouster, the fee dropped to the minimum the Forest Service and BLM can legally charge: $1.35. Aside from a five-year blip during the George W. Bush administration where the fee rose a few cents, it's been at that legal minimum ever since.

According to the BLM, which issued a press release announcing the fee last week, the grazing fee is determined each year based on ranchers' costs, beef prices, and the rates for comparable grazing fees on private lands. Included in those calculations is an assumption that your standard cow weighs in the neighborhood of 1,050 pounds. A cow that size is estimated to eat about 26 pounds of foliage a day, which works out to 780 pounds of salad bar for that $1.35 a month, and kids (or calves) eat free.

But cattle have actually increased substantially in size since that estimated standard cow was designated back in the 1980s. The average US bovine in 2013 weighed 1,333 pounds at slaughter, according to the federal government. Even accounting for the usual weight gain in feedlots just prior to the animals' trip to the slaughterhouse, that's a significant increase in size, and presumably in the amount of public lands vegetation consumed in the course of an Animal Unit Month.

That's part of the reason private landowners, state governments, and even other federal agencies usually charge significantly more for grazing privileges on lands they manage. A 2005 GAO study found private, state, and federal grazing fees running anywhere between $20 and $150 per AUM, with rancher-friendly Texas charging that higher fee for some of its state lands.

There are those who feel the federal government isn't doing enough for public lands ranchers. On Thursday, the House of Representatives passed a bill that would extend public lands grazing permits from 10 to 20 years, exempt ranchers from some environmental review, and restrict the ability of environmental groups to sue over grazing plans. Passed as an amendment to an unrelated bill, the legislation isn't expected to pass the Senate.

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