The BLM Grazing Mess

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?


10 thoughts on “The BLM Grazing Mess”

  1. Esquire says:

    generosity/aid/support to one’s political opponents is always seen as undesirable. the current political dynamic equates ‘welfare recipients’ as Democrat party supporters, and business, (especially large non-tech sector business) and family farming as Republican party supporters.

    it is unfortunate that the political dialogues are becoming less about reaching compromise, and increasingly about confrontation. i fear we will ultimately self-destruct our federal/state system before my child is eligible to vote.

  2. Lourain says:

    The BLM mess is an example of “‘the tragedy of the commons” and has been a problem for more than 50 years (when I was in college). Long-term drought across the West has exacerbated the problem.
    As a matter of curiosity, I wonder if Bundy’s land is as thoroughly overgrazed as the Federal lands?

    1. Who knows, but it was reported this morning that he has been grazing his cattle on 600,000 federal acres and only owns 160 acres himself, and owes the federal government over a million dollars in fees, having paid nothing since 1998.

  3. JakeB says:


    I don’t think it is fair to call this an example of tragedy of the commons. The problem with ranchers overgrazing on federal lands is more like the issue of unknowing theft (as discussed indirectly by Mr. Modesitt in Parafaith War) and the unwillingness to recognize that one has been getting subsidies rather than earning everything by the sweat of one’s brow.
    While federal land is at least in theory collectively owned, if there is only one person using (and abusing) it in any given region, the driver of the problem is lack of effective regulation and pricing rather than competition among many for a limited resource.
    That is, it’s a free rider problem, but one where there is only one free rider rather than many possible ones.

    1. Lourain says:

      More than one person has been overgrazing the BLM lands. It has been an ongoing problem for at least 40 years to my personal knowledge (I have relatives in both New Mexico and in Arizona that I have visited over that length of time, giving me the opportunity to observe the results of overgrazing…overgrazing was a topic of discussion in my college ecology class in 1972, as well).
      The ranchers who rented the BLM land for grazing ran as many cattle as they could manage, with no long-term conservation of resources in mind. That is why, finally, the number of head of stock allowed was reduced.
      Even with this long overdue change in regulation, the rules have not been enforced effectively. (Unless Bundy’s case is a change in enforcement policy? Or did he piss off the wrong people?)

  4. Wine Guy says:

    I’d submit that one of the reasons the ranchers are so indignant is that they got caught and their collective pride and self-image is hurting.

    1. I think it’s more likely that they’ve grazed those lands for so long and so cheaply that they believe that they’re theirs. They’ve certainly said so, even though the federal government owned the lands before the ranchers arrived in that area.

  5. D Archerd says:

    I’m not a livestock guy, but I’ve been told by those who are that horses are much harder on land than cattle due to the shape of their teeth and their grazing habits. To wit, while cattle crop grasses down to within an inch or so of the ground (allowing subsequent regeneration), horses chomp it right down to the ground and even pull up roots, thereby completely denuding the pasture. Having seen the bare dirt that results when horses are kept in a single pasture for long for myself, I can readily believe that an excess of wild horses could quickly threaten desertification of land. Whether or not they could do so in three weeks is another matter, and one which, I suspect, has a great deal more to do with the desire to create a political firestorm then genuine concern for the environment.

    1. Lourain says:

      And sheep are even worse…look at the Navajo reservations.

  6. Goats can do the same thing, which is one of the contributing factors to the spread of the Sahara Desert.

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