Contribution of public lands grazing to Custer County Economy

The Challis Messenger carried an article about the voluntary retirement of grazing privileges on the Wildhorse allotment of the Challis National Forest.

The article quotes County Commissioner Randy Corgatelli who said: “We can’t keep losing AUMs” (animal unit months), Corgatelli said. “It hurts the economy of Custer County.”

Corgatelli’s statement is more hyperbole than accurate.

According to the Dept. of Commerce 2014, total ranch and farm employment in Custer County was 9.3% of all jobs. But one must parse this further.

Of the 9.3% that Ag contributes to Custer County’s employment, considerably less is the result of grazing on public lands.

Keep in mind that some of this employment figure includes farming not ranching at all.

Furthermore, even among the ranching sector, much forage production is partially or entirely produced on private lands. So, the contribution of public lands grazing forage to employment is less than 9.3% figure.

Even more importantly since forage production per acre on public lands is which are less productive than most private lands, especially irrigated hay fields, the contribution of public lands forage to income production is significantly less than the 9.3% figure might indicate.

In a study the contribution of public lands grazing forage to employment and income, economist Thomas Power, former chair of the U of Montana Economics department, concluded that “My empirical analysis demonstrates that grazing on federal lands contributes only a tiny sliver of economic activity to the local economies-usually a small fraction of 1 percent of total income and employment, and rarely more than 1 percent.”

Indeed, 1996 federal study (the latest data I could find) found that the contribution of federal grazing privileges made up only 0.3% of the county income and 1.3% of the jobs. Given the decline in ranching in Custer County, I would expect these figures to be even lower today.

Just because a rancher gives up grazing privileges on public lands, doesn’t mean he completely gives up ranching. Some subset of ranchers relinquishing grazing privileges will continue to operate livestock operations, but on private lands either that they own or rent.

In other words, even if all ranching privileges on public lands were eliminated from Custer County, the actual impact to the county would be relatively insignificant.

Finally, the loss of employment in one area is often compensated by employment in other areas.

It is well established that livestock ranching has so many negative impacts on wildlife and recreation from damage to riparian areas, forage competition (forage going into a cow is that much less for an elk), dewatering of streams (adversely affecting fisheries), spread of disease to wildlife (as in domestic sheep spreading diseases to wild bighorns), the spread of weeds like cheatgrass which increases fires in sagebrush negatively impacting sage grouse and so forth,

Thus, the reduction in livestock operations can increase wildlife and fish populations which will lead to greater tourism and recreation employment opportunities. In all likelihood, this will contribute much greater employment in Custer County than the current contribution of public lands grazing privileges.






  1. Patrick Avatar

    Thanks for this analysis. What would be nice to have is a 5 year follow-up on how the retirement improved the rangeland, and the nature and scope of the economic activity that has resulted from using this allotment for something other than public lands grazing. If anyone out there knows of studies that have been done like this, please post links…I would like to read the articles.

George Wuerthner is an ecologist and writer who has published 38 books on various topics related to environmental and natural history. He has visited over 400 designated wilderness areas and over 200 national park units.

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George Wuerthner