This past week, what amounted to a small scale range war erupted just across the Utah border in Nevada, and in a spirit of misguided “idealism,” compounded by greed and ignorance, Iron County [Utah] officials weighed in on the side of a long-time law-breaking rancher. Now… that’s not the way the local media put it, but so far as I can determine, here are the facts.
A Nevada rancher named Cliven Bundy has been grazing over 500 head of cattle on BLM land for over 25 years without paying federal grazing fees, ever since the BLM decreased the number of cattle permitted on the federal lands that the Bundy family had used for roughly a century. Despite previously paying grazing fees, Bundy has claimed that he and his family own the lands through their “beneficial use.” After twenty years of contention and two recent court decisions denying Bundy’s claims, the BLM began removing Bundy’s cows this past week. Fearing violence, BLM issued an order banning the Bundy-family from the federal lands where the cows were being removed and deployed heavily-armed agents to protect the federal-hired wranglers who were removing the livestock. The Bundy family ignored the order and attempted to videotape the removal. When they were ordered to leave, one family member refused and offered physical resistance. He was arrested, and the round-up proceeded.
To make matters worse, the Iron County sheriff and the Iron County Commissioners, citing the Bundy case as another example of BLM trampling over local ranchers in favor of wildlife, offered an ultimatum to BLM, claiming that BLM’s failure to round up excessive numbers of wild horses on BLM lands was jeopardizing the health of the land and thus penalizing local ranchers, whose access to and leasing of federal lands was limited because of the poor state of those lands caused by too many feral horses. The Iron County officials threatened to round up the horses themselves if BLM failed to come up with an immediate plan. Late last week, BLM agreed to develop such a plan, after previously saying that it didn’t have the funds necessary for such a round-up. Yesterday, both Iron County and Beaver County began moving feral horses off private property, claiming that, if the horses weren’t removed immediately, they would “destroy”the range in the next three weeks.
This is not a case of right versus wrong; it’s a case where everyone is wrong, and it’s a mess.
Under federal law, the Bureau of Land Management [BLM] can lease grazing rights to BLM lands in eleven western states, under a formula set by Congress, and last revised in law in 1978.
This past February, BLM set the rate at $1.35 per animal unit per month [AUM], the same rate that has been the case for the past eight years. An animal unit means either one cow and her calf, one horse, or five goats or sheep.
This rate isn’t a bargain; it’s an absolute steal. To begin with, according to the General Accounting Office of the federal government, grazing fees amount to less than one-sixth the cost the federal government spends maintaining those lands. In addition, 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. According to a Congressional Research Service Report, “The average monthly lease rate for grazing on private lands in 11 western states in 2011 was $16.80 per head.”
In the Bundy case, the family hasn’t paid any fees in over twenty years – and feels that they’re the victims. What’s more disturbing is that the Bundys report they’ve received letters of support from thousands of people across the west.
The BLM is far from blameless. According to BLM figures, the BLM lands in Iron County should only have 300 wild horses, but BLM estimates there are over 1,200, and BLM has cut grazing allotments to ranchers, claiming that the funding Congress has allowed for dealing with wild horses is inadequate – and it likely is, given that $70 million was appropriated last year for wild horse management, compared to the nearly $1 billion spent on livestock management on federal lands. How could they let these situations go on for over twenty years? And why has BLM set the grazing fee so low at a time when the government is running massive deficits? And how could they let the wild horse situation get so bad that there are hundreds of horses on the verge of starvation and that certain lands have been badly overgrazed to the point of becoming true deserts? As for the local ranchers, I find it hard to believe that, first the range could be totally destroyed in three weeks, but if it could be, exactly how long will it take their cows to do the same thing and why didn’t they make such a claim before things got so bad?
And finally, why are all those ranchers so indignant about federal overspending and big government – when they’re right up there with all the welfare cheats, getting huge subsidies at the expense of everyone else?