The recent winning bid by Western Watersheds Project for a 640-acre state grazing lease on Champion Creek in the Sawtooth Valley demonstrates the multiple ways livestock grazing harms Idaho residents, including in the pocketbook.

Idaho has approximately 1.4 million acres of state lands leased for livestock grazing to raise funds for “beneficial uses,” primarily public schools. The program nets about $1 million for the state annually.

WWP won the bid by paying $8,200 and will continue to pay an annual fee of around $1,000 to hold the lease, but will remove livestock.

The problem with this program is that it doesn’t fully account for the actual cost of continued livestock grazing on these parcels to Idaho residents.

For instance, Champion Creek, the parcel won by WWP, is a spawning stream for endangered steelhead and bull trout. Pronghorn also use it. There is no question in the scientific literature that livestock grazing almost always harms riparian and aquatic habitats.

Livestock grazing of state lease lands has numerous ecological impacts that the state land board ignores but are “costs” to all Idaho residents.

Water pollution from concentrated grazing animals and soil compaction from hooves exacerbate drought by inhibiting water infiltration.

Damage to stream banks and vegetation can increase flooding, and sedimentation harms fisheries. 

Native herbivores like elk and deer may be socially displaced by domestic livestock. In addition, the vegetation going into the bellies of cattle and sheep is not available to support native wildlife, from sage grouse to elk.

This means less wildlife for hunting and wildlife viewing.

There are recreational impacts as well. For example, most people don’t enjoy camping in a cowed-out meadow or hiking among cow pies.

These actual costs get back to the payments the state received. Because there is no cost-benefit accounting of the impacts of livestock grazing vs. any “profit” from lease fees, the Idaho State Land board can assert livestock grazing makes sense to Idaho citizens.

The $1 million paid for grazing on all state leases could easily be replaced by the slightest redirection of tax dollars. For instance, if Idaho residents were to pay approximately one dollar more in taxes, it would more than compensate the state for any losses resulting from a total ban on grazing these lands. Not to mention that Idaho legislation recently approved a tax rebate of hundreds of millions of dollars.

The continued livestock grazing of state lease lands should be subject to a full accounting of the presumed benefits, and termination of grazing would easily “save” Idaho residents more than continuing the current program. 

George Wuerthner, Livingston, Montana

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