Cattle grazing in riparian zone on the Bridger Teton National Forest. Photo George Wuerthner

When I was in graduate school, required reading was a slim book titled “How to Lie with Statistics.

It opened my eyes to the multiple ways you can misuse statistics to “prove” a point. A new report published by Wyoming Extension Service, Economic Impacts of Removing Federal Grazing Used by Cattle Ranches in Wyoming, is an excellent example of the principle of how to lie with statistics.

The first thing I do whenever I read any paper is look at the source. The article is authored by ranching advocates and funded by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. That doesn’t mean what is reported is inaccurate, but it does tell me to read the paper a bit more carefully.

The report is full of what How to Lie with Statistics warns readers about misuse of statistics. One is the lack of context. For example, the Wyoming Extension Service paper exclaims that “many ranches in Wyoming depend on federal grazing to support their livestock operations.”

An important question is to what degree do Wyoming ranches depend on federal forage. And how much does federal forage contribute to local employment and income?

What constitutes “many” in this report? The report says there are 1,982 federal grazing permits in Wyoming.

Wyoming, the Cowboy State, ranks 29th in cattle and calves production and just in behind such well-known livestock-producing states as New York (19th), Virginia (20th), Alabama (24th), and Florida (18th), among others.

There are approximately 12,000 ranches in Wyoming, so many ranch operations do not use federal grazing permits.

Total ranch employment related to federal forage access is less than 1% of all jobs in Wyoming. Photo George Wuerthner

According to Headwaters Economics, total farm employment (which includes more than just beef cattle operations) is 14,497 people, or 3.8% of Wyoming jobs. However, the Wyoming Extension Service paper estimates that only 3,857 jobs depend on federal forage, or roughly 25 percent of all farm employment. Thus federal forage contributes to less than 1% of all income in Wyoming.

But even this number of jobs is an exaggeration. First, people must be aware that most Ag economic analyses include “Ag-related” employment. For instance, in a study I did on Vermont Dairy Farms, I discovered the state Department of Agriculture considered grocery store clerks, servers in restaurants, and even Green Mountain Coffee employees, as Vermont ag-related jobs. Adding Ag-related jobs to the total employment figures vastly inflated Ag employment. Even if there were no dairy farms, there would still be grocery stores and coffee producers in Vermont.

Ag proponents often include “secondary economic interests” in their total employment figures. For instance, because some ranchers ride ATVs, the report assumes that all people employed servicing and selling ATVs in Wyoming are dependent on ranching for their livelihood. Photo George Wuerthner

The Wyoming Extension Service paper includes jobs in what it terms “secondary economic interests,” such as feed stores, veterinarians, bulk fuel dealers, and other associated businesses. These were included in the total Ag employment picture. So the authors conclude that the total economic impact for federal grazing-dependent Wyoming cattle ranches was $532.4 million. The $532.4 million in economic activity supported the employment of nearly 3,900 jobs and $140.7 million in total labor income.

However, this assumes that there would be no veterinarians, fuel dealers, or even feed stores, much less other associated businesses, if there were no grazing on public lands. Since most Wyoming ranch operations do not depend on federal grazing leases, there would still be ranchers and ranch operations. But even if all ranching in Wyoming disappeared, Wyoming residents use veterinarians, fuel dealers, feed stores, etc., because most “ranching associated” businesses have other customers outside the cattle ranching community.

It is important to note that Wyoming farm income is 2.1% of the state’s total. To imply, as the Wyoming Extension Service suggests, that farming (thus ranching) is essential to the state’s economic well-being is, at best, an exaggeration.

Old Faithful erupting. Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks play a big part for employment in Wyoming’s Tourism industry. Photo George Wuerthner 

By comparison, Headwaters Economics finds the travel and tourism sectors which are also largely dependent on Wyoming’s extensive federal lands, such as Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks, employed 41,066 persons in 2020, accounting for 15.7% of the personal income. Even more telling is that service sector jobs accounted for 73% of all employment. The contribution of Ag-related employment is a minor part of the state’s economic profile.

The Wyoming Extension Service report assumes that economic sectors are static. For example, if livestock grazed on federal lands were terminated, the study’s authors suggest the state would suffer a complete financial loss. But in reality, the rapid growth of the non-farm sector would quickly evaporate all ranching employment losses.

Even in Wyoming, which has an abundance of federal lands, most  Wyoming cows are fed forage from private sources. Part of the reason is that settlers selected the most productive lands. So on a simple per-acre basis, private lands grow more vegetation, have more water, and are generally at lower elevations where the climate is not as extreme. So we must consider how much federal lands contribute to farm sector employment.

Well, it turns out not much.

Another ploy that ranch proponents use is “dependence” on federal forage. But again, this can be deceptive because if a ranch use any federal forage, even grazed by one cow, it is labeled as “dependent” on federal grazing. In reality, most ranching operations in Wyoming, due to cold, snow, extreme climate, and lower productivity that characterizes federal lands, typically get most of their forage on private lands.

In some western states, including California, Montana, and Washington, federal lands contribute to less than 10% of the forage consumed by livestock. Even in Wyoming, with its abundance  of federal lands, federal forage contributed to approximately 21% of all forage consumed by cattle and sheep.

In an economic analysis of public lands livestock grazing in my book Welfare Ranching published in 2002, economist Thomas Power found that the percentage of income derived from federal grazing allotments was 0.24% of the state’s total. Power estimated it would only require 54 days of real income growth to replace all federal grazing-derived income in Wyoming.

Today’s exact numbers are likely less than when Power contributed his paper to the book since the number of ranching operations in Wyoming has declined since Welfare Ranching was published. In contrast, jobs in the non-farm sector have increased dramatically.

Another clever deception Ag interests use to exaggerate Ag’s economic contribution is an assumption that federal forage is the only significant variable in Wyoming ranching operations. However, other economic factors typically ignored in the above figures contribute to ranch income, including labor, water, land, and equipment.

This is where it gets interesting.

According to Headwaters Economics, between 1970 and 2020, farm employment increased by about 1.4 percent. By comparison, from 1970 to 2020, non-farm employment grew from 145,092 to 371,794 jobs, a 156.2 percent increase.

According to the Wyoming Extension Service report, removing all federal grazing permits in Wyoming would result in a total loss of 1,700 jobs (including those secondary businesses, so not just a loss in ranch operation employment). But a loss of 1700 jobs in an economy that grew by 226,702 jobs between 1970 and 2020 would barely be noticed.

Indeed, Power calculated that removing all livestock grazing for the 11 western states would only pause income growth by eight days of normal economic expansion.

But the authors of the Wyoming Extension Service report assume stable and static employment. In other words, any loss of federal livestock grazing is a net loss to all Wyoming income and jobs.

However, livestock grazing on federal lands has numerous detrimental impacts on the state’s wildlife and fisheries.

It is reasonable to assume that reducing or eliminating all federal grazing would increase other economic opportunities.

 

Wildlife watching is a big part of Wyoming’s tourism industry. If federal livestock permits were terminated, it would undoubtedly lead to more wildlife watching opportunities. Photo George Wuerthner 

For example, wolf-watching is popular in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. But wolf killing by Wildlife Services or ranchers significantly reduces the state’s wolf population. If livestock operations were eliminated, we would likely see more jobs related to wildlife guide services.

Similarly, livestock grazing has a massive negative impact on streams and water quality. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that if livestock operations on public lands were terminated, fish populations would increase, as would sport fishing.

Removal of livesock grazing on fedeal lands would permit “rewilding” of the West that would result in more water storage in upland streams, meadows and wetlands, which in this age of extreme drought would be worth far more than any economic values assocaited with federal ranching.

As Thomas Power noted in his economic analysis: “Given that agriculture is the direct source of only a small fraction of total economic activity, that livestock grazing is only a fraction of total agricultural activity, that federal forage is only a fraction of total feed required by western livestock, and that feed is only one source of the value created in livestock production, it should not be surprising, if that federal forage supports only a small fraction of total economic activity in the West.”

Many ranchers are adjusting to labor shortages and costs by importing foreign workers who often are exploited by long hours, and low wages. Photo George Wuerthner 

Finally, ranchers would respond to the loss of federal grazing forage in numerous ways. They would not simply disappear, as assumed by the Wyoming Extension Service Report. Instead, they might cut costs and increase efficiency. They could reduce labor costs by importing more foreign workers, leasing or buying more private land to produce forage, or they may turn to cow-calf operations or other means of achieving wealth.

In the TV series Yellowstone, John Dutton decides a way to improve his bottom line is to breed and sell the best cow horses in the West.

While ranchers often praise the “free market,” they are addicted to federal subsidies for their existence. Grazing on federal lands costs $1.35 an AUM (Animal Unit Month or the amount of forage consumed by a cow and calf in a month), while similar costs on private lands often exceed $20 an AUM. Government welfare doesn’t end with subsidized grazing.

Taxpayers pay for predator and pest “control” by federal Wildlife Services. There is federal drought relief and other payments available. Taxpayers subsidize most western water irrigation projects. Even the electrical rate paid by irrigation to pump water is typically far lower than what someone living on minimum wage in the city would have to pay for the same amount of water.

If federal grazing permits were retired by the Voluntary Grazing Permit proposal, ranchers would have to begin living in the free market that they always praise but never actually experience.

 

 

 

About The Author

George Wuerthner

George Wuerthner is an ecologist and former hunting guide with a degree in wildlife biology

4 Responses to Wyoming Extension Service Grazing Report: Economic Exaggerations

  1. Maggie Frazier says:

    Its obvious the damage that livestock does to any riparian area as well as the destruction to the range in general. It doesnt take a rancher, farmer or someone who lives on the West Coast – anyone who has seen pastures with cattle or sheep in them should be well aware of what it does to any area of land or water. The West is NOT a place for livestock grazing! Its arid, some mountainous, has predators (where they should be).
    As this article says, not meant for livestock.
    The prey & predator creatures who have existed in these areas for hundreds(thousands) of years do so in harmony with the environment.
    Doesnt take a genius to understand that – which certainly says something about the people who insist on raising livestock in an area that wasnt meant for them.

  2. franc mengels says:

    In my experience 50 years in federal grazing, the report is true and accurate. Excellent. Appears that many TES species may increase and likewise, associated incomes to over-ride WY economic losses. A few trappers might lose their income with no cowboys hassling then to shoot wolves bears and lions, but 1000 sightseers would drop LOTS of $$$ income to see a wolf. I would!

  3. Jeff Hoffman says:

    This shouldn’t be about money. It should be about maintaining the land and the life there in the most natural condition possible. That means removal of all cattle and domestic sheep.

  4. Nadine R. says:

    Welfare Ranching….interesting, living in WY I’ve used that tern alot. You can always tell where private land abuts public grazing, the public grazed land looks bad..It is interesting to read about how small the economic impact is % wise, and how we lag behind other “non-beef producing” states (really, who thinks, ah yes, New York beef?)
    Will have to check out the statistics book.

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‎"At some point we must draw a line across the ground of our home and our being, drive a spear into the land and say to the bulldozers, earthmovers, government and corporations, “thus far and no further.” If we do not, we shall later feel, instead of pride, the regret of Thoreau, that good but overly-bookish man, who wrote, near the end of his life, “If I repent of anything it is likely to be my good behaviour."

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