Grazing Permit Retirement Needed

Across the West,  livestock grazing is one of the most destructive land uses. Some 250 million acres of public lands are grazed by domestic livestock including those administered by the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, as well as national wildlife refuges and even some national park units.

This use is not benign. Livestock pollutes public waters with their waste. Livestock compact soils reducing water infiltration. Their hooves break up biocrusts which hold the soil together and reduce wind erosion. They spread diseases to wildlife, for instance, pneumonia to bighorn sheep. They spread weeds. They eat forage that might otherwise support native herbivores from ground squirrels to elk. They socially displace native animals like elk from the best lands. We kill predators like wolves, cougars, bears, and coyotes to facilitate livestock operations. Fences on public lands block wildlife migrations and serve as lookout posts for avian predators that prey on sage grouse and other endangered species.

And to add insult to injury, we charge ranchers a ridiculously low fee for grazing our public lands. Currently, the fee is $1.35 an AUM (animal unit month) or the amount of forage a cow and calf can consume in a month. You could not feed a pet goldfish on $1.35 a month.

While livestock grazing on public lands is a privilege—that can be revoked at any time—it is rarely done. From a public policy perspective ending public lands, grazing is desirable. However, given the entrenched political power of the livestock industry, removing livestock from public lands is difficult.

Range conservationists also have a vested financial interest in maintaining livestock grazing. If there are no cows or sheep on the land, there is no need for a range con. So, the range conservationists will do just about anything they can to maintain livestock even in the face of tremendous ecological damage. Since it’s not their money, they will propose new grazing plans, new fencing, more water developments, more range riders, or whatever, to keep livestock on the range when in most cases, merely eliminating livestock is by far the best policy from both an economic and ecological perspective.

However, there is one mechanism that has the potential to free our public lands of the livestock yoke—livestock grazing permit retirement. The way permit retirement works are that in exchange for a predetermined amount of funding, the rancher volunteers to give up their public lands grazing privileges on a specific allotment. Permit retirement is voluntary.  At this point, the funds for such permit retirement have come from private sources including individuals and foundations, though it would be advantageous if public funding could be part of any legislation.

In the past livestock organizations have thwarted legislation that would apply to all public lands.

Although these retirement agreements can occur as an administrative decision on the part of the managing agency, there is always a chance that a future district ranger or BLM manager might decide to reissue the permit to another rancher.

The best way to guarantee permanence is to include grazing permit retirement language in any public lands bills including the creation of a new national monument, national recreation areas, national parks, wilderness, or other similar legislation.  However, grazing permit retirement can be part of any Forest Service or BLM management plan and should also be advocated when these plans are updated.

For example, the legislation that created the Boulder-White Cloud wilderness areas in central Idaho contained a clause authorizing the BLM and Forest Service to accept “donated” grazing permits. The permits would then be “permanently” retired.

Legislated permanent retirement is critical because it gives much greater certainty that no future public lands administer can suddenly reauthorize livestock grazing.

If part of a legislative package, it’s important to designate a specific area for grazing permit retirement and to include language that says any allotment that is part of the mapped retirement area can be added as well.

So in the above example of the Boulder-White Cloud legislation, while the total amount of new wilderness was approximately a quarter of a million acres, the mapped footprint for grazing retirement is nearly 750,000 acres. Thus far grazing by livestock as a result of permit retirement has been eliminated on 100,000 acres in the Boulder White Clouds.

Currently, there is legislation being reintroduced into Congress to create new public lands designation, including three wilderness bills for California, several wilderness bills in Colorado and the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act that would protect lands in five western states. These and other new land protection designations should all include voluntary grazing permit language.

During the planning process for both BLM and the Forest Service, the public can demand that grazing permit retirement be part of any updated management plans.

In the absence of overall legislation that would remove private livestock from all public lands, permit retirement is the best way to extinguish livestock impacts on public lands heritage gradually.


  1. Lyn McCormick Avatar
    Lyn McCormick

    It will take a financial incentive for the Permittees to give up their permits, something that guarantees future security rather than pulling the rug out from under them. The BLM has an $80,555,000 budget to manage wild horses and burros on HMAs. Most of that is spent managing WH&Bs OFF range under private contracts for $2-$5+ per head / per day. The BLM, for any number of reasons, is unable to manage the WH&Bs cost effectively and humanely and it is wreaking havoc on the range and pitting stakeholders against each other. This has been the situation since the Wild Free Roaming WH&B Act. I advocate for transitioning the BLM WH&B budget to ON the range mgmnt by way of contracting with the Permittees, who are in the best position to do ON the range mgmnt. Given the current WH&B program budget they could potentially derive more net revenue on an annual per head basis mgmng WH&Bs than livestock and pay for private livestock pasture elsewhere. When you go to DC and speak to Congressional Reps, especially the ones on the Appropriations Committees, most are NOT from States with Public Lands, and expecting them, much less the Committee staffers, to understand the nuances of managing anything on the open range is unrealistic. The only way to get their attention is by way of explaining the waste, fraud and abuse in the BLM WH&B program budget. I propose this as a stepping stone option, to be tried on a case by case, HMA or HA basis,
    where appropriate.

  2. Chris Zinda Avatar
    Chris Zinda

    Curious why you do not mention the $22 million settlement between you, ONDA, Advocates West and Kinder-Morgan (El Paso) over the Ruby, the ‘successes’ of your acquiescence. An overview of Sagebrush Habitat Conservation Fund 990s shows few and it slowly being funneled to support WWP day to day operations ($300k in 2017). The same is likely for ONDA.

    Given you all sold out the steppe, I understand your reticence, as you want folks to forget. However, I will never let you and am looking forward to setting the record straight as the summer book season arrives.

    1. Hiker Avatar

      I’m very confused. Do you have any details about what you posted?

      1. NMccormish Avatar

        Some background links below. It would be timely if WWP would pulish or link to what these funds were indeed used for since the settlement, though as I recall this included permanently retiring some grazing permits and conserving other areas, I just don’t have the particulars. The articles linked below (there are others all over the internet) indicate the settlement funds would be separately overseen and administered, however.

        To be fair though, our nation itself has sold out the Steppe, and WWP has been among the foremost in trying to prevent that, with only measured success. The current administration climate (and related chaos) looks intent on abandoning both the Steppe and a hard-won public/private protections agreement. Numerous coastal Senators supported his nomination once they were assured there would be no offshore drilling nearby, but didn’t and don’t give a damn about our western public lands, which remain a pantry to be raided at will by various for-profit interests:

        “The funds, including $15 million for Western Watersheds over 10 years, will be administered by three-member boards with diverse representatives. The groups won’t receive any funds directly.

        Western Watersheds Executive Director Jon Marvel said last month that he expects the money to eventually be used to buy grazing permits from willing ranchers and retire them. But during an Aug. 4 Elko County Commission meeting that lasted 2 1/2 hours, Jim Cleary, president of El Paso Western Pipeline Group, said the fund won’t be “a treasure trove that’s available to Western Watersheds Project,” and will not be used to outbid grazing permit licensees who are renewing their permits, among other assurances.”

        “In the deal, El Paso plans to establish a $15 million conservation fund for the Idaho-based Western Watersheds Project and a $5 million fund for the Oregon Natural Desert Association over a period of ten years.

        In turn, WWP’s Executive Director Jon Marvel tells the Elko Daily Free Press, both groups have “agreed not to try to delay or litigate Ruby Pipeline.”

        If completed, the pipeline will cross four Western states: Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, and Oregon. In its initial design capacity it could stand to transport 1.5 billion cubic feet per day. The company estimates that its installation will cost about $3 billion, according to an official project summary. The project is currently awaiting Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and approval from state historical preservation offices.

        El Paso Western Pipeline Group President Jim Cleary tells Adella Harding of the Elko Daily Free Press that the agreement reflects “El Paso Corp.’s industry-leading commitment to environmental stewardship and to this end represents a significant component of the unprecedented voluntary mitigation efforts being applied to Ruby’s construction and operation.”

        Both organizations already have big plans for their respective funds (which will not go directly to the organizations, instead to separate funds that will be be overseen by three-member boards.)

        The Oregon group’s executive director Brent Fenty, said in the same article, “Protecting the area around Hart Mountain and Sheldon Refuges is critical to ensuring the survival of high desert species like sage grouse and pronghorn antelope.” The Hart-Sheldon conservation Fund could create restoration and conservation initiatives for 5 million acres of habitat.

        The Western Watersheds Project, on the other hand, plans to focus almost exclusively on using the money to retire grazing permits by buying them from willing ranchers. The organization is first working on Congressional approval to allow federal agencies to retire these permits, however.”

  3. Chris Zinda Avatar
    Chris Zinda

    The underlying story is Advocates West took advantage of both it and WWP’s dying oligarch, sellng out WWP. They did it because WWP was hemorrhaging funds as a result of their Greenfire project, a TNC-like effort, and needed the cash. Further, the settlement ties their litgation hands for anything to do with the Ruby or spurs – including Jordan Cove.

    The funds were to create the Sagebrush Conservation Fund, to buy out permittees. To date, only the Vya Ranch was purchased – and still running cows. And, money is being funnelled from it to WWP as if 2017.

    Who knows what PEW captured ONDA does with their share.

    I got this right, George et al?

  4. B000 Avatar

    What about the mustang

  5. Charles E Cavaness Avatar
    Charles E Cavaness

    Though you are a very good writer, you have a number of incorrect statements. First, you do not have a complete understanding of the requirements placed on livestock permitted or you do not completely share the correct information on purpose. Secondly, the value of livestock grazing does a great deal to consume, noxious weeds that wildlife will not eat, open up the topsoil allowing new seeds to germinate, etc etc
    Interestingly, with proper management I was able to more than triple the amount of animals grazed in my allotment while bringing back wildlife and native grasses that had not been there for years.
    You make your argument to simplistic with a very complicated situation.


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