Livestock grazing negatively impacts more public lands in the West than any other industry. Photo George Wuerhner 

Legislation that would have given the federal government authority to close grazing privileges on public lands was recently withdrawn.

Grazing permit buyouts allow the federal government to close public lands to future livestock grazing permanently.

New Mexico’s U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich introduced and sponsored the Wildlife-Livestock Conflict Resolution Act that would have applied only to New Mexico, but still has implications to national efforts to remove livestock from public lands. After significant pushback from the livestock community, Heinrich has decided to shelve the legislation for now.

Fortunately national permit retirement legislation, the VGPRA (Smith/Huffman)  is still waiting for Congresional action.

Many see buyouts as a “win-win” for the rancher and the public. In exchange for a pre-determined amount of money, private foundations and individuals can pay a rancher to relinquish their grazing privileges to public land allotments voluntarily. At the same time, the federal government permanently closes the allotment to future grazing.

Domestic sheep were removed by grazing permit reirement in the a portion of the Upper Green River area of Wyoming seen here, but the Bridger Teton Nationa Forest wants to reopen the allotment to cattle grazing. Photo George Wuerthner 

One of the benefits of federal legislation is that it makes any agreement permanent. Without permanence, federal agencies sometimes try to restock the allotments with livestock, as proposed for the Upper Green River area of Wyoming.

It’s important to note that grazing on public lands is a privilege. The federal government can close an allotment at any time for any reason. However, due to the political influence of the livestock industry, permanently retiring a grazing allotment is often tricky, even if a rancher agrees to relinquish their grazing privileges.

Legislation that created the Boulder White Cloud Wilderness areas in Idaho contained language for voluntary grazing permit retirement. Photo George Wuerthner 

For instance, livestock permits in Idaho were retired as part of the legislation passed to establish the Boulder-White Cloud Wilderness. Similar retirement of grazing privileges successfully closed several allotments on Steens Mountain in Oregon with the passage of the Steens Mountain Cooperative Management and Protection Act.

There are many advantages to grazing permit retirement for the public. Livestock grazing has the biggest negative impact on public lands across the arid West. For more on these impacts, read my book Welfare Ranching.

Livestock grazing is one of the most significant factors in species endangerment in the West.

Wolves are regularly killed to appease ranchers grazing on public lands. Grazing permit retirement could reduce these conflicts. Photo George Wuerthner 

It is the reason we are killing wolves, coyotes, and other native predators on public lands is to protect private livestock using public lands.

Grazing is also the number one factor in destroying the thin green lines of vegetation along waterways are crucial to 70-80% of the wildlife in the West.

Livestock grazing also spreads weeds by trampling biocrusts and consuming native grasses, giving exotic species like cheatgrass a competitive advantage.

 

Livestock manure is a major source of non-point pollution on public lands. Photo George Wuerthner 

Livestock manure is also one of the significant sources of water pollution on much of the federal lands.

Livestock can also transmit diseases to wildlife, such as pneumonia, from domestic sheep to wild bighorns.

Removing livestock from wilderness areas and parks also increases the natural integrity of these areas. For instance, WildEarth Guardians had agreed to buy out Taos County rancher Erminio Martinez’s permit in the Columbine-Hondo Wilderness. However, without the permanence guaranteed by Heinrich’s legislation, the deal might not go through.

Unfortunately for Heinrich and U.S. citizens who own these public lands, opposition from the New Mexico Association of Conservation Districts, the New Mexico Farm and Livestock Bureau, and individual ranchers scuttled the bill.

Nevertheless, many individual ranchers see permit retirement buyouts as a way to sustain existing ranch operations. With money from a buyout, a rancher could purchase other private lands, pay off mortgages and other debt and otherwise realign their economic priorities.

Heinrich’s decision not to reintroduce his legislation is a significant loss to the public.  Private domestic animals raised on public lands for private profit will continue to trash and degrade public lands and wildlife resources.

Cow hammered spring and riparian area in Idaho. Permit retirement could reduce such damage. Photo George Wuerthner 

There is other legislation that includes grazing permit buyouts as part of the package. One is the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act, sponsored by the Alliance for Wild Rockies which would protect nearly 23 million acres.

You can help WildEarth Guardians persuade Senator Heinrich to reintroduce his legislation here.

Among the organizations promoting livestock grazing permit retirement are Western Watersheds Project, the Center for Biological Diversity, Gallatin Wildlife Association, Oregon Natural Desert Association,  Alliance for Wild Rockies, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Wilderness Watch, Great Old Broads For Wilderness, and the Sagebrush Habitat Conservation Fund. Supporting all these organizations can further the permit buyout option.

About The Author

George Wuerthner

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

17 Responses to Senator Heinrich Will Not Reintroduce Grazing Permit Buyout Legislation

  1. Todd M Shuman says:

    The VGPRA has not been withdrawn from the House … https://adamsmith.house.gov/press-releases?ID=7BD4FA3C-4611-4794-8C1B-F4A173DEF670

    • Ed Loosli says:

      Thank you Todd for this important up-date: From your post; “The Voluntary Grazing Permit Retirement Act is endorsed by several leading environmental, conservation, and wildlife organizations including Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Defenders of Wildlife, Humane Society Legislative Fund, American Bird Conservancy, Wilderness Watch, Humane Society of the United States, Western Watersheds Project, Predator Defense, Horses for Life, and Oregon Natural Desert Association.” .. If this passes the House, it will sail through the Senate (I hope)

  2. Mike Sauber says:

    Ranchers would NEVER give him a vote against ANY republican. Now he is Pissing off his base. It makes no sense. Could the banks that hold the unsecured mortgages on other permits be freaking out? That would be a powerful force to go up against. Their gravy train ending.

  3. David says:

    Thank you George for providing additional information in this article on how the average citizen can be more involved in the management of our public lands. Tried contacting WildEarth Guardians.

  4. William Boyd says:

    What explanation has the Senator offered for his withdrawing such legislation?

  5. Maggie Frazier says:

    As in Congress the minority seems to be calling the shots. Is it because they yell the loudest? Because that appears to be the clincher. Time for Dems to stand up & be counted & GET SOMETHING DONEF!

  6. Mike Sauber says:

    I do wish the VGPRA didn’t limit the number of permits retired to no more than 100/year. But… it’s a foot in the door.

  7. Jannett Heckert says:

    Thank you George for speaking up. Most people are oblivious to welfare ranching and destruction by cattle on the range. I like your article. The wild horses of the 10 western states might be gone in the next 10 years thanks to the United States government’s handling by the BLM and Department of Interior if they have their way. You are pointing out who is doing the damage.

  8. Jeff Hoffman says:

    This shows how self-entitled ranchers feel about grazing on public lands. The fact that they can’t stand the idea of VOLUNTARILY being able to retire grazing permits is ludicrous and nonsensical. I get their concern, but it’s illegitimate. Ranchers and their damn cattle shouldn’t be on public lands to begin with.

  9. Marc Bedner says:

    An alternative to the “for sale by tenant” program: instead of environmental organizations buying public land from ranchers, let the utility companies use their “clean energy” money & influence to remove ranchers.
    Solar company protects 215,000 acres of Mojave Desert
    Avantus partners with BLM and wildlife services to retire grazing rights and permanently dedicate land to wildlife forage.
    https://pv-magazine-usa.com/2022/11/17/solar-company-protects-215000-acres-of-mojave-desert/

    • Jeff Hoffman says:

      Prohibiting cattle, especially in a very fragile desert area like this, is always a good thing. However, I have a question and an issue here:

      Question: Were the grazing permits being retired actually being used? If so, great, good on them! If not, this is just PR and won’t do anything to make up for the harm that the company did by destroying other land with solar panels.

      Issue: There’s no such thing as “clean” energy except for direct sunlight. Solar panels, wind generators, and electric cars will cause as much or more harm than fossil fuels, except that the harms will be different. Destroying habitats and ecosystems with solar panels is no different than destroying them with things like oil rigs. We need to radically both lower our lifestyles and our population, not look for magical solutions to the problems we’re causing.

  10. Ida Lupine says:

    Does anything grow at all under those solar arrays? From what I’ve seen, no.

    I realize that it sounds like part of the land is being preserved for wildlife and native trees and plants, but how to keep them in their ‘designated’ areas?

    I know that Joshua trees are very sensitive, and to put these things in place there’s a lot of ripping out of vegetation and ‘evicting’ (the best you could hope for if they are partnering with Wildlife Services) the wildlife.

    It just sounds like another clever spin job to me:

    “San Francisco’s land area is relatively small compared to other major cities in the United States. Spanning just 47.355 square miles (122.6 square kilometers.”

    source: Bay Area Telegraph

    • Jeff Hoffman says:

      The article didn’t mean the agency Wildlife Services, it meant wildlife services as a description of the agencies listed farther down in the article. What Wildlife Services does is KILL wildlife on behalf of ranchers and farmers. The last thing you want is to have them involved. The Center for Biological Diversity has been trying to get this evil agency disbanded for years, and I totally agree.

      • Ida Lupine says:

        I wish they would, also. It’s not only ranchers and farmers, at least that is my understanding?

        I hope they are not involved – because I think they kill wildlife on behalf of a lot of groups – airport bird strike prevention, property protection and other human activities, and I’m sure for renewable energy too upcoming. We’ll have to see. I realize that the articles are trying to paint a rosy picture.

        The agencies themselves do not inspire confidence, because they’ve killed wildlife too – desert tortoises for example, and the incidental takes for marine life for the offshore projects.

  11. Ida Lupine says:

    And what do you know, wonder of wonders, a new law just went into effect to protect the Joshua trees, or developers will face fines. So they’re not doing it out of the goodness of their hearts:

    https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2023-07-11/new-joshua-tree-law-imposes-fees-on-desert-developers#:~:text=For%20instance%2C%20permittees%20are%20required%20to%20mitigate%20losses,within%20two%20miles%20of%20Joshua%20Tree%20National%20Park.

    I have seen the Joshua trees in bloom in the Mojave, and they are a treasure, much more so than more urban sprawl.

  12. Ida Lupine says:

    I have to add, than goodness for the Center for Biological Diversity and other groups too of course. Otherwise, I really believe there would be nothing left at all.

    • Jeff Hoffman says:

      Yes! The Center was formed by Earth First!ers from Arizona and New Mexico, and they’ve done great work. Instead of civil disobedience and monkeywrenching like the old Earth First!, they sue, and they win about 90% of their cases.

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Quote

‎"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."

~ Edward Abbey