Erik Molvar

A series of University of Wyoming economic analyses (funded by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association) to determine the economic impacts of eliminating federal grazing found that public land ranching isn’t just insignificant in local western economies, but its economic contribution is entirely inconsequential.

The small economic contribution of public-lands cattle and sheep in the arid West is dwarfed by cattle production in the lush pastures of the East and Midwest. And, of course, there’s a good reason for this: The vast majority of cattle in the United States are pastured in states with ample rainfall and productive pastures, not in the arid West which is wracked by drought more often than not.

The Wyoming bulletin claims a total economic impact of $215.3 million per year from public land livestock grazing for that state. That sounds pretty important at first glance. But Wyoming’s Gross Domestic Product in 2021 was $41.5 billion (according to the Federal Reserve Bank), so the drop that public-land grazing made in Wyoming’s financial bucket amounts to only one-half of one percent of the state economy. And Wyoming’s economy is pretty wimpy, so that’s a tiny sliver of a very small pie.

In Idaho, the combined economic impact of public-land grazing equaled less than two-tenths of once percent of Idaho’s economy. Private cattle grazing on Idaho federal land brings in $186.4 million, which also sounds like a lot. But Idaho’s Gross Domestic Product is $105.8 billion, so the contribution of federal cattle grazing is less than two-tenths of one percent of that state economy.

In Oregon, livestock grazing on federal lands had the smallest economic impact, tallying up to only $133.9 million per year. But Oregon is an economic juggernaut compared to the Interior West, and its state economy generated $284.8 billion in 2021, and federal livestock grazing contributes a microscopic five-one-hundredths of one percent of Oregon’s annual economic output.

In short, economically speaking, no one would miss the money generated by public land livestock grazing if it were to suddenly vanish tomorrow. We’re talking about rounding-error margins of economic output, even in Wyoming with its smallest and most rural of economies.

When it comes to jobs, the University of Wyoming reports indicate that public-land grazing supports 1,693 jobs in Wyoming, 1,369 jobs in Idaho, and 954 jobs in Oregon. The reports go through the empty exercise of multiplying jobs out by ten and forty years to produce inflated numbers and an exaggerated sense of federal livestock grazing’s employment picture, but these frivolous figures are not even worth reporting: Everybody knows that losing one job for 10 years is one job lost, not 10.

All told, Wyoming has 277,372 total jobs, Idaho 932,813, and Oregon 2,118,888, according to Federal Reserve Bank statistics. Thus, in the three-state region covered in these reports, federal land livestock grazing generates only one-tenth of one percent of the 3.3 million jobs in these three states.

Even this anemic figure doesn’t tell the real employment story. When was the last time you saw an American citizen working livestock on federal lands? A substantial proportion of cattle and sheep herders out West are now Peruvian workers who toil for appallingly low wages under temporary work visas. These few livestock jobs are jobs that Americans don’t want, and the livestock industry is so desperate to find workers that they have to fly them in from overseas.

It is now widely accepted (indeed, published in the scientific literature) that only 1.5% of American-raised beef ever sets a hoof on western public lands. If all the cattle disappeared tomorrow from National Forests and Bureau of Land Management lands, the American consumer wouldn’t notice a difference in either the price or availability of hamburger or steaks.

In Wyoming, according to the study, the federal government permits 2.4 million Animal Unit Months (that’s one cow-calf pair, or five sheep, each) of livestock grazing on public land. According to a USDA report, that’s the equivalent of 416,666 elk that might otherwise be supported year-round on Wyoming public lands, or 160,000 wild horses, or 1.2 million mule deer.

Or (more realistically), an equivalent combination of these species. This doesn’t account the trout stream losses that result from cattle wallowing in streams and grazing off the streamside vegetation. What are the foregone economic benefits of losing these wild species, which all are more valued by, and valuable to, the general public?

From a taxpayer standpoint, public lands livestock grazing is a losing proposition. The federal government charges only $1.35 a month for a cow-calf pair (or five sheep). When ranchers lease grazing lands from each other, they pay an average of $23.60 per Animal Unit Mont, on average, so the rental rates on public lands are a 94% discount from fair-market value.

In the 2017 fiscal year, Congress allocated a combined $135.9 million for the grazing programs of the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service according to a nonpartisan investigation, while the agencies collected only $25.9 million in grazing fees.

The taxpayers had to make up the difference. And the reality is even worse than that, because only a third to a quarter of these grazing fees go to the U.S. Treasury, while state governments (giving them an incentive to lobby for more livestock) and the Range Betterment Fund – which can be used to build fences, water troughs, corrals and other facilities for the sole benefit of the public-land rancher – get the lion’s share.

And to make things worse, a new scientific study found that livestock grazing not only increases wildfires and radically decreases carbon storage on grazed lands, it also costs the public $36 per Animal Unit Month in climate impacts, far outstripping the $1.35 and AUM that ranchers pay when they rent public lands for grazing.

The public owes the University of Wyoming economics department (and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association) a debt of gratitude for putting some hard numbers to the paltry economic output of public lands grazing.

Given its vanishingly small economic contribution (and insignificance as a jobs generator), these figures put into stark relief the few benefits that this program brings to offset its high economic and environmental costs. To be sure, federal livestock grazing is important to the select few who profit from it, but for the rest of us it’s a drag on the economy.

It’s time to start engineering a just transition – not just for public lands ranchers, but for public lands and wildlife too.

Erik Molvar is a wildlife biologist and Executive Director of Western Watersheds project, a nonprofit conservation group working to protect and restore wildlife and watersheds throughout the American West.