Beginning today, March 1, ranchers will be paying less money to graze their livestock on public land. The change was described by federal agencies as justified by the economics of farming and ranching, but criticized by environmentalists as further reducing the federal government’s ability to properly care for its rangelands.

The BLM and U.S. Forest Service announced last week that the grazing fee for 2019 will drop to $1.35 per animal-unit month, a 4 percent decrease from the 2018 fee of $1.41 per AUM and the lowest legally permitted. (An AUM is grazing by one cow and her calf, one horse or five sheep or goats for a month.)

The announcement followed a fee reduction last year of nearly 25 percent, the most allowed by law. The fee in 2017 was $1.87 per AUM.

The formula used for calculating the grazing fee was established by Congress in the 1978 Public Rangelands Improvement Act and has remained in use under a 1986 presidential executive order. Under that order, the grazing fee cannot fall below $1.35 per AUM, and any increase or decrease cannot exceed 25 percent of the previous year’s level.

According to the BLM, the annually determined grazing fee is established using a 1966 base value of $1.23 per AUM for grazing on public lands in Western states. The figure is then calculated according to three factors—current private grazing land lease rates, beef cattle prices and the cost of livestock production. In effect, the fee rises, falls or stays the same based on market conditions.

In an email to the Idaho Mountain Express, a BLM spokesman said the 2019 fee reduction is the result of increases in the costs of forage and production costs, as well as a decrease in beef cattle prices.

Four environmental organizations, including the Hailey-based Western Watersheds Project, contended in a joint press release that costs to administer the grazing fee program exceed the money collected, resulting in taxpayer subsidies of about $100 million per year.

The organizations noted that grazing fees were initially based on a “fair-market value” set at $1.23 per AUM in 1966, but are not indexed to inflation. If the federal government adjusted the fee annually to keep pace with inflation, the current rate would be $9.47, the groups claimed.

The federal agencies noted that half the collected grazing fees go to a range betterment fund for on-the-ground range improvement projects.

“The BLM and Forest Service are committed to strong relationships with the ranching community and work closely with permittees to ensure public rangelands remain healthy, productive working landscapes,” said Brian Steed, BLM deputy director for programs and policy.

A 2016 report by the Congressional Research Service said the range improvement fund is used for range rehabilitation, protection and improvement, including grass seeding and reseeding, fence construction, weed control, water development, and fish and wildlife habitat.

The environmental groups claimed that fences, corrals and cattle troughs built with fund money benefit livestock operations but cause environmental degradation. They said barbed-wire fences are a major cause of death for sage grouse and the denuded areas around livestock troughs become hotspots for the spread of invasive weeds. 

“Federal agencies should be charging fair-market value for commercial livestock grazing on Western public lands, and only allowing livestock at levels and in places where major environmental impacts can be prevented,” said Chris Krupp of WildEarth Guardians. “With the fee formula set by statute, Congress must step in to reform public lands grazing. It must revise the Public Rangelands Improvement Act’s fee formula as the first step in ending a subsidy that damages more public lands than any other federal program.”

According to the BLM, the fee applies to nearly 18,000 grazing permits and leases administered by the BLM and nearly 6,500 permits administered by the Forest Service. The Ketchum Ranger District manages nine permittees and the Sawtooth National Recreation Area manages 19.

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