In addition to reading "Should cows chew cheatgrass on the common lands?" (and "Can cows and conservation mix," (assigned reading for this point in the course), you may wish to read "Rangeland Health: New Methods to Classify, Inventory, and Monitor Rangelands," published in 1994 by the National Academy of Sciences Press. The National Research Council was asked to produce this assessment of the state of the science, with authors mainly professors from land grant universities – such as OSU – and managers from USDA (US Department of Agriculture) and USDI (US Department of the Interior).

In addition, the Renewable Resources Planning Act (RPA) of 1974 mandates periodic assessments of forests and range lands in the US. The legislation directs that the assessments be conducted by the US Forest Service, and consider a broad range of renewble resources, including outdoor recreation, fishe and wildlife, water, range, timber, and minerals. The 2000 RPA report is the most recent of such assessments.

As you know, there are about 7 bill people on Earth. There are also about 3 bill cattle, sheep, and goats on Earth. In the US, livestock outnumbers humans!

In the US, more than half (nearly 70% actually) of the harvested grain area is used for animal feed (to "finish" [i.e. fatten] them). Globally, about 80% of soy and 40% of corn produced is fed to livestock and poultry [Vital Signs 2011]. Tremendous acreages are also used for grazing (as opposed to raising feed for) these animals -- both on public and on private grazing lands.

Over the western states, ~ 73% of the publicly owned land is grazed. The combined acreage of public land that is grazed across western states is about 270 million acres, which is equal to the total acreage of OR, WA, CA, and ID.

Together, the BLM and Forest Service are the major overseers of grazing on western public lands. However, the biggest single manager of publicly owned grazing lands is the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which was established in 1976 by the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (a fusion of the General Land Office and the Grazing Service). In the US overall, the BLM manages about twice as much land as does the Forest Service. The BLM is responsible for the management of about 270 million acres of public land; this is an area four times the size of Oregon, equal to 1/8 of the area of the US. The BLM manages more land than US Forest Service + the National Park Service + the US Fish and Wildlife Service combined, and BLM administers livestock grazing leases on ~ 170 million of those acres (~ 2/3 of the land that it manages).

About 19% of Oregon's land area is leased by the BLM for grazing. (There are 62,126,720 acres in OR, and 12 million of those are leased for grazing by the BLM.) That is, about 82% of the BLM's land in Oregon is leased for grazing. The percentage is even higher in some other western states.

Private livestock owners lease grazing rights from the BLM and Forest Service, with about 7% of western livestock owners actually using federal lands for grazing their herds. However, the leases on federal land are heavily dominated by a few big operators: over 40% of the federal grazing permits, covering about 74 - 48% of federally leased grazing lands, are held by about 3% of livestock operators (~ 2,000 large operators). (Data from a 1992 US Government Accounting Office study).

The BLM and Forest Service have both come under attack recently for abuses of land related to overgrazing. In fact, some sources indicate that private rangelands are generally in worse condition than are federal grazing lands (others say the opposite). We'll focus here on federally owned lands.

By the Public Rangelands Improvement Act of 1978, BLM and Forest Service are charged with improving their management of the lands and to decrease grazing on those lands where damage is indicated. US Forest Service grazing policies are formulated by professional range management specialists. However, until recently, the BLM's policies relied on advice from rancher advisory boards, comprised of ranchers -- a board with vested interests. When "Rangeland Reform" took place in 1995, the BLM's situation changed, in that their policies are now formulated by "Resource Advisory Councils" which must be comprised of people from diverse backgrounds.

The BLM's own monitoring and evaluation data on rangeland condition for fiscal year 1990 indicated that:

BI390000.gif 1/3 of its public rangelands were in "satisfactory" (good or excellent) condition

BI390000.gif 2/3 were in "unsatisfactory" (fair or poor) condition

By the end of 1998, BLM assessments found that 50% of its grazed land was in fair to poor condition, with about 33% in good to excellent condition, and the remainder unknown. Some of the land that is currently in poor condition is actually land that is recovering from the tremendous overgrazing that took place near the turn of the 20th century, so current conditions shouldn't all be blamed on present practices. Society for Range Management data indicate that about 15% of the BLM's land is improving in condition. However, about 14% is in declining condition as well.

Percentages are similar for lands leased by the US Forest Service for grazing, with only about half of US Forest Service grazing land judged to be in satisfactory or better condition.

See "Should cows chew cheatgrass..." in your readings for a discussion of the controversy about what these condition classes mean. "Satisfactory" and "unsatisfactory" condition classes depend, of course, on the definitions and criteria being used! The BLM often uses "desired condition," which can be defined as they choose. Also see the National Research Council book mentioned above for more elaborate discussion of rangeland condition classes. Its authors define rangeland health as the degree to which the integrity of soil and ecological processes of rangeland ecosystems are sustained, independent of how the rangeland is managed

While the individual impacts associated with livestock grazing may be more benign than those associated with land use changes such as building of highways, subdivisions and so forth, the scale of the landscape committed to grazing may make it the single greatest threat to biodiversity in the US. For example, 219 species listed under the federal Endangered Species Act occur on BLM lands in the US. Other sources of degradation may be more noticeable and more extreme in local impact, but have much smaller geographic scope than do grazing impacts. Over all of the US, livestock grazing is considered one of the top five threats to native plants (that is, is cited as one of the causes for their threatened or endangered status). When considering all kinds of endangered or threatened creatures (not just plants), livestock grazing is considered the 4th leading threat, nationally, and the #1 threat in arid regions of the US.

For a specific example, until very recently (written in early 2007), it appeared likely that the sage grouse would be listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act as threatened. The sage grouse was formerly abundant in the sagebrush-dominated country from Eastern Washington through California to the Dakotas in the East and South to the Oklahoma panhandle. It is quite dependent on sagebrush for food from November through February, and relies in other seasons on the cover provided by sagebrush. Its numbers have dwindled alarmingly, making it a candidate for federal listing, largely in response to habitat loss. If it were to be listed, the listing would affect a larger area of the western U.S. than did the listing of the Northern Spotted Owl in forested regions. In fact, it is sometimes referred to as the "nest spotted owl." According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, "he Fish and Wildlife Service has concluded that the greater sage-grouse warrants protection under the Endangered Species Act. However, the Service has determined that proposing the species for protection is precluded by the need to take action on other species facing more immediate and severe extinction threats.As a result, the greater sage-grouse will be placed on the list of species that are candidates for Endangered Species Act Protection. The Service will review the status of the species annually, as it does with all candidate species, and will propose the species for protection when funding and workload priorities for other listing actions allow." The major threat to the species is loss of habitat to a variety of influences, including:

Conversion to wheat fields and residential subdivisions

Damage associated with livestock grazing, including competition for food, trampling of eggs, and decreases in cover.

Depleted water owing to water withdrawl for urban uses from cities, such as Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Phoenix.

Increased fire frequency, related to increases in dominance by exotic species such as cheat grass.

Erosion-prone crop lands that have been converted to perennial grasslands under the Conservation Reserve Program are viewed as important for this species.

Many pieces of legislation have been proposed to address concerns about impacts of livestock grazing on public lands. Proposals have ranged from banning all livestock from public lands through grazing fee incentive programs (e.g., in 92-93), which would discount grazing fees if the permittee "improves" public lands within their allotment. The idea was to reward good grazing practices that facilitate meeting resource objectives. However, "improvements" may include damaging things like the water diversions (see below) without necessitating any decrease in grazing intensity. Agency people worry about such programs being a nightmare to administer – monitoring, law suits, disagreements over condition and what constitutes "improvements," etc.


What percentage of US beef production relies, at least in part, on these western public rangelends? Well, this question is difficult to answer, in part because many western livestock owners use not only public but also private grazing lands, and because cattle spend various proportions of their feeding lives on the public lands. Suffice it to say, however, that the percentage is small (significantly less than 10%; probably between 2% and 4%). Consider the following:

Basically, much degradation of western public rangelands has taken place for a small percentage of our beef production. (Recall that less than 7% of all western livestock producers actually use these western public lands, with their use dominated by a few big ranchers, who control about 74-78% of the forage.)

IMPORTANT NOTE: I am by no means claiming that all federal permitees abuse the rangelands – they don't. Some are excellent stewards of their land, and have been passing the permits on through the generations of their families. However, there are many abuses, as the BLM's own inventory of its rangeland condition indicates.


Overgrazing has adverse consequences for:

(1) The sustainability of livestock production on these lands.

(2) The ecological diversity and balance of these fragile, semi-arid grassland ecosystems. Very few substantial remnants of native grassland systems remain, most having been very altered by current and past livestock grazing.

(3) Riparian areas and waterways (as described in "Should cows chew...") A 1990 EPA analysis reported that western riparian areas are in the "worst condition in history."

Degradation to riparian areas results from cattle congregating near them, trampling streamside vegetation and compacting soils. Vegetation declines, water temperatures increase to the point where they are lethal for most fish (warm water can't hold as much dissolved oxygen as can cooler water), stream channels become downcut which lowers the water table, and the streams become silty from erosion and eutrophied from livestock "fertilizer." Consequences of riparian and stream degradation for native fish stocks are a matter of grave current concern, contributing to the decline of many species. These riparian areas are vital to the survival of many wildlife species; 75-80% of all wildlife species depend on riparian areas for survival. For example, many wildlife species need nitrogen-rich green forage for good digestion. Such forage is most abundant in riparian areas, but these are heavily used by livestock. Hence the digestive efficiency of these wildlife species decreases later in the season and they enter winter in poor condition.

(4) Availability of forage for native animals. There is competition between livestock and some native animals for food. Livestock operators often claim that, since livestock are making satisfactory weight gains, wildlife must be doing fine too (i.e., there must be plenty of forage out there). This claim ignores the fact that livestock are ecological generalists while many wildlife species (e.g., many birds such as quail) are more specialized in their dietary requirements. That is, cattle weight gain can be fine while wildlife species are starving because of different dietary needs.

Winter wildlife food sources can also be strongly affected by the presence of livestock. For example, many wildlife species move down into lower elevation ranges for winter. However, upon arrival, these winter ranges often have been so heavily utilized by livestock that they don't provide good winter forage for native species. (Incidentally, increases in elk populations are sometimes touted as indicating improved range condition, but more often simply reflect changes in hunting regulations -- lower limits, bull-only seasons, etc.)

(5) Diseases in native wildlife species. Diseases of livestock can affect natives -- e.g. big horn sheep populations crash now and then from disease borne by domestic sheep. A recent example was the documented transmission of pneumonia from domestic sheep to big horn sheep in Montana, which killed 10% of the state's big horn population [High Country News 2010

(6) Availability of water sources. Range "improvements" like water troughs often divert water from natural springs and creeks, and pose difficulties for wildlife that depended on natural wet areas. Watering systems also spread the impact of cattle to places previously inhabited by wildlife.

(7) Predator populations, which can be depleted by predator control programs. These programs have consequences not only for the predator populations themselves, but for populations of the prey that they formerly regulated. (This issue is becoming increasingly charged, as wolves move back into Oregon...)


Maybe all of these concerns are tolerable if public lands grazing generates large revenues, and employs many people? We tolerate grave environmental damage for other financially-lucrative ventures, such as mountaintop removal in Appalachia to mine coal,...

It is estimated that public lands ranching contributes less than 1% of total income and employment across eleven western US states.

The Federal lease rate charged to ranchers is $1.35 (2007) per AUM (AUM = animal unit month = area (or amount of forage) used by one cow or 5 sheep or 1 cow+calf or one horse for a month). This works out to less than 5 cents per day (about what it costs to feed a hamster).

(The formula for calculating lease rates takes beef cattle prices, current private grazing land lease rates, and the cost of livestock production into account. Rates may be lower when beef prices are lower, for example. Fifty percent of the revenue is to be returned to the leasing agency for range improvements, and the other 50% is to be allocated to federal and state treasuries.)

In contrast, the lease rate charged for grazing on state lands is considerably higher. For example, in 2007, it was $5.80 per AUM for state of OR lands (managed by the Division of State Lands, who manage ~ 634,000 acres in SE Oregon and lease most of it for grazing). A 2004 Oregon Secretary of State's audit found that the state's grazing fee should be changed. They determined that the fee had not been periodically reviewed, as is required; was not set to maximize revenue, which it is supposed to be; and they recommended that it be increased to a rate similar to that charged for private non-irrigated lands as reported by the USDA's National Agriculture Statistics Service. This did happen -- as of 2012, the rate for leasing OR state lands for livestock grazing had risen to $8.48 per AUM. Lease rates in some western states are considerably higher than in oregon.

The private lease rate in the 11 western states is also considerably higher than the Federal lease rate -- as of 2008, the private lease rate in OR for non-irrigated land averaged $14.10 per AUM, while that for irrigated land averaged $24 - $26 per AUM (Beefmagazine March 08). As of 2006, the average private lease rate across the 11 western states averaged $15.10 per AUM, ranging from $8 - $23 per AUM.

Private and state lease rates seem closer then federal rates to pricing the resource according to its true value.

Basically, low lease rates provide a major federal subsidy for ranchers who use these lands, and a subsidy that, in many (but not all!) cases, results in degraded land. Keep in mind, also, that this subsidy largely benefits huge corporate livestock operators [over 70% of leased acreage is leased by just 3% of operators...].

Over the West as a whole, the Government Accounting Office (GAO) finds that grazing fees cover about 1/6 of the cost of administering the leases and managing the lands (2005; Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution). Basically this is a Federal subsidy to ranchers. Federal subsidies are not unprecedented of course. The US Forest Service often earns less money from timber sales than it put into the land, road building, planning, and so forth. And production by farmers in the US is routinely subsidized by the government in various ways.

However, do subsidies that often result in degradation of the resource (as in the case of the overgrazed portions of federal lands) make sense? (Keep in mind that this subsidy largely benefits huge corporations; Western Rodeo, for example, has permits to lease 4.6 million acres of public land in the west! In addition, as noted above, public lands ranching makes a small contribution to jobs and the economy in the western 11 states.

The BLM, like the Forest Service, is supposed to manage lands for more than commodity production (timber or livestock). These agencies are mandated to multiple use management (i.e., consideration of wildlife, fisheries, recreation, aesthetics, and so forth). However, in 1991, the Burns district of the BLM was allotting 252 million pounds of forage for livestock and only 8 mill for wildlife! (that is, 97% versus 3%). This emphasis by the BLM on grazing use over other uses is typical: of the range improvement monies that BLM can account for since 1980, 96.5% were used to benefit livestock (this is for the BLM overall, not just the Burns district).

Various pieces of legislation have been proposed to raise grazing fees on federal lands; that is, to price the resource according to its true value. Additional legislation has been proposed that would force BLM to manage public lands to maintain and restore their natural productive capacity, as in inclusion of biodiversity provisions.

Major challenges to BLM's and Forest Service's management practices are actually coming from the courts rather than from changed legislation, similar to what happened with timber here in the Pacific Northwest, where the courts were finally what halted logging while the fate of the Northern Spotted Owl was decided.

For example, a coalition of environmentalists and others brought suit against the BLM over grazing in five canyons in Utah, and a Federal judge stopped grazing on those allotments. The judge decided that BLM had violated and even defied federal law in administering the grazing permits there. Grazing was banned there until an approved environmental impact statement is completed, and it is demonstrated that grazing is in the best interests of the canyons and the public.

The same kind of thing happened in the Stanley Basin in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area in ID, where a suit brought by a coalition of fishermen and environmentalists was successful in requiring that 2/3 of the cattle be removed from the area.

(Incidentally, a large percentage of OR state lands leased for grazing are committed by the state constitution to produce money for the Common School Fund, yet these lands are leased at lower than market rates. The Oregon State Land Board voted in 1994 to open leases to competitive bidding – where non-livestock folks could potentially get leases too – but the Governor voted to reverse the ruling that would have let the leases go to the highest bidders, to keep his campaign promise to the ranchers....)

However, the US Supreme Court in May of 2000 upheld then-Interior Secretary' Babbit's authority to establish new regulations on federal lands leases. This includes a regulation that specifies that permits CAN be held by persons or groups who are not in the livestock business (that is, an environmental group could bid on a permit, and if theirs' was the highest bid, they would have the right to lease that land for purposes other than livestock grazing). In addition, a very controversial piece of Babbit's regulations, which was also upheld by the Supreme Court, states that the US government owns all "improvements" made to leased lands by the permittees -- including fences, wells, and roads.

Perspectives on what to do about leasing federal lands for livestock grazing range over the complete spectrum from declaring all such lands "livestock free" to continuing business as usual, or even lessening federal controls on how the permittees use the land.

In some cases, environmental organizations such as The Nature Conservancy argue that working cattle ranches can be compatible with conservation, in part because they prevent subdivision of the land into housing and other developments. Developments often involve fencing (which is a barrier to movement of some animals), construction of roads (with consequent increases in runoff and erosion), and fire suppression, which changes the natural dynamics of the plant and animal communities. One model that attempts to use livestock grazing as part of a sustainable strategy for rangeland preservation is given by the Malpai Borderlands Group (MBG), outside of Douglas, Arizona. (See "Can Cows and Conservation Mix" in your readings packet.) The MBP involves a group of ranchers and local residents working to preserve open space, biological communities, and traditional livelihoods (ncluding livestock ranching). The group is reintroducing fire into portions of the land that its members own or lease, and is active in encouraging land owners to set up conservation easements on their land. A conservation easement involves a land owner selling or donating development rights on their land to a nonprofit group interested in preserving open space. Without development rights, the assessed value of the land decreases, taxes also decrease, and economic pressures to sell the land to developers are thereby decreased as well. (The other children in my family and I, along with our mother, have established such a conservation easement on property that she owns in northern Minnesota. We can still use the property in perpetuity, but the conservation easement stipulates that we will not harvest timber from the land, nor subdivide it, nor build dwellings other than the small cabin that now exists there.) The MBG is interested in minimizing federal involvement in their land management (and their lands are home to many threatened or endangered species), and hopes that its independent efforts to improve their stewardship of the land now, and in the future, will be effective not only at "keeping the government off their backs," but at improving the quality of the land for native species of plants and animals. (See BioScience 51: 85 - 90 (2001) for more on this case study.)

Whether grazing should or should not continue on public lands in the west is not a question that can be answered by science, but is a question that depends on cultural values.

To review the notes that follow on soil erosion caused by agriculture, click >> at the bottom of this page; for general reminders on how to navigate within and among these pages, click "Navigate ."

Page last updated Nov. 5, 2012. Page maintained by Patricia Muir at Oregon State University.