As Forage Demand Increases, Debate over Grazing on Public Lands Heats Up

December 6, 1996

Of the 307 million acres of federal land in the western United States, approximately 262 million acres, or 85%, is grazed by domestic livestock part or all of the year. More than half the commercial operators with beef cattle herds in the West graze federal lands.

According to a recent report by the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST), a leading consortium of 33 professional scientific societies, individuals are becoming increasingly concerned about the ecological effects of grazing on federal lands.

Public Perceptions of the Grazing Permit System

Dr. William A. Laycock, professor of rangeland ecology and watershed management at the University of Wyoming in Laramie and chair of the CAST task force report Grazing on Public Lands, explains what happened when livestock grazing on federal lands first was regulated in 1897.

“When grazing on federal lands was brought under control,” he states, “permits to graze allotments were awarded to local private ranchers who owned private land or water rights in the area and historically had used the rangelands. The intent was to stabilize the livestock industry.” Because they are attached to private property, grazing permits on adjoining federal land generally cannot be bought by anyone other than the user of the private property to which the allotment is assigned.

According to coauthor Dr. Marty Vavra of the Eastern Oregon Agricultural Research Center of the Oregon State University at Burns, some individuals consider the permit system unsatisfactory. “Some worry that livestock grazing on public lands causes diminished biodiversity; deteriorates range, watershed, and stream bank conditions; causes soil erosion and desertification; and decreases wildlife population and habitat. They also worry that recreational opportunities may disappear. Many attribute these problems to what seem inappropriately low grazing fees, or lease rates, paid to the government for grazing.”

Moderate Grazing Beneficial to the Environment

Heavy grazing, especially if it alters structural diversity, for instance by removing trees or shrubs, will decrease biodiversity. But at the community and landscape levels, moderate grazing should increase biodiversity because livestock do not graze uniformly.

“Moderate grazing now characterizes the federal rangelands,” states Laycock, “and with some exceptions, U.S. rangelands are in the best condition this century.” Long-term trend data from both the Bureau of Land Management, for public rangelands, and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (formerly the Soil Conservation Service), for private rangelands, support this statement.

Studies of livestock grazing effects on density and diversity of nongame wildlife species such as birds and mammals are inconclusive. Diversity when grazed/ungrazed areas are combined is greater, however, than when either kind of area is considered alone. So a mosaic of areas receiving different intensities of grazing should have the greatest species diversity.

Managed grazing at light or moderate levels can minimize damage to young trees and stimulate trees to grow by removing competition from shrubs and herbaceous species. Grazing by sheep and goats is especially beneficial in this regard. In some rangelands, intensive grazing by these animals is being used to discourage or to prevent the spread of weeds.


Sustainable rangeland management implies that the use of a resource will not jeopardize future productivity. Major changes in vegetation composition have occurred in some areas as a result of livestock grazing. Some perennial bunchgrass rangelands in California and in the intermountain area of southern Idaho and nearby states have been converted to annual grasslands. “These changes, set in motion more than 100 years ago, probably can’t be reversed,” states Vavra.

“Recent research indicates,” he continues, “that if grazing is eliminated, the return to a former state doesn’t take place in a timeframe meaningful to management, and may not ever happen,especially where shrubs or exotic species dominate.”

According to the CAST report, the concept Desired Plant Community (DPC) is the best current approach to defining the desired end point for specific areas of rangeland. Laycock explains: “The DPC defines as its goal the specific plant community that is possible on a site and that best meets a management plan’s objectives, considering all the potential values and uses for the site. The DPC then can be a focus for concerned citizens and management agencies.”

Why Public and Private Land Leasing Fees Differ

Intermingled public and private land ownership patterns exist throughout the West as a result of land grants to railroads and the states, various federal land reservations, and the selection of productive land by early homesteaders. For instance, much of the arable land and the land along streams and around water sources went into private ownership through homesteading or purchase.

Thus, many well-watered and productive private lands were surrounded completely by poorly watered and generally less productive public lands. This resulted in the present intermingled land ownership pattern.

“Because federal lands and private lands are of such different quality, federal grazing fees and private grazing leases are not analogous,” explains coauthor Dr. Fred Obermiller of the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, Oregon State University at Corvallis.

Obermiller also points out that the terms of the two types of leases differ greatly. “Private grazing leases usually furnish necessary improvements like fences and water. They may include management, and the grazer usually has exclusive use of the land. But if your animals are grazing federal land, you must share the land with multiple users.”

“Also, land management agencies restrict time and pattern of livestock grazing and may ask users to construct or maintain fences and other improvements,” continues Obermiller. “And they may impose more stringent overhead costs to cover increasing demands on federal land management agencies.”

Disadvantages of Eliminating Grazing on Public Lands

The complementary private/public land ownership pattern of the land dependent western ranching industry is complementary. Much of the land grazed by beef cattle is in federal ownership, and public grazing lands are a necessary addition to private grazing lands. “One cannot substitute for the other,” states Vavra. “In many parts of the West, a large percentage of the land is in federal ownership, and there is not enough private land to substitute for public lands if they were eliminated.”

Laycock states that “If federal grazing fees were made the same as private land grazing lease rates, grazing on public lands wouldn’t be economically feasible for many ranchers. Many who are public land dependent, and a great percentage are, would go out of business. And this would contribute to the decline of western rural communities.”

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