The Social Carbon Cost of Public Land Livestock Grazing

Public land livestock grazing has a significant social cost in terms of carbon emissions contributing to climate warming. Grand Staircase-Escalante NM Utah.  Photo George Wuerthner 

An important paper was published in Environmental Management about the social carbon costs of public land livestock grazing. The paper Climate, Ecological, and Social Costs of Livestock Grazing on Western Public Lands, authored by Boone Kauffman, Robert Beschta, Peter Lacy, and Marc Liverman, examines the actual carbon costs of livestock grazing and argues for the positive benefit of federal land livestock grazing termination to the public.

Cow pie spattered in Idaho streams. Livestock manure along with methene emissions from digestion are among the major sources of livestock GHG emissions. Photo George Wuerthner 

In their paper, the authors demonstrate that emissions from cattle (enteric formation and manure deposition) are a significant but unreported contribution to carbon emissions.

Public lands livestock grazing equaled 12.4 million t CO2e/year. They argue that the social costs of public land livestock grazing in terms of carbon emissions vastly surpass what the federal government receives in grazing fees.

They estimate the social carbon cost of public lands grazing to general taxpayers to be $1.1–2.4 billion/year. This massive subsidy to the livestock industry significantly exceeds the paltry amount that ranchers pay to graze their livestock on public lands.

However, more importantly, the researchers show that public land livestock grazing grossly exceeds the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Industrial Greenhouse emitters and are essentially unreported GHG emissions from public lands.

Grazing impacts from cattle on Oregon BLM lands. Photo George Wuerthner 

For instance, in the Lakeview District, Oregon Resource Management Plan (BLM 2004), the BLM authorized 164,128 AUMs of livestock grazing on nearly 1.2 million hectares of public land. Greenhouse gas emissions from that grazing totals between 64,000 and 144,000 t CO2e/ year, far above the 25,000 t CO2e/year EPA reporting limit.

Added to this direct contribution of livestock to GHG emissions, the authors note that livestock-induced degradation of native plant communities reduced carbon sequestration due to desertification, degradation, and land cover change associated with livestock activities.

The additional and collateral costs to society of CO2 emissions include 1) premature deaths caused by extreme heat, (2) impacts on agricultural yields, (3) energy use in response to temperature changes, and (4) sea-level rise.

Public lands management agencies like the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service are required by law (Executive Order 13990 (2021) and Interior Secretarial Order 3399) to fully account for carbon emissions from federal lands. Yet these agencies regularly ignore the contribution that public lands livestock in its grazing permit authorizations has on carbon emissions.

The social carbon cost of livestock grazing on Oregon’s federal lands is estimated to be as much as $226 million a year. Photo George Wuerthner

For instance, the 1.4 million AUMs of grazing on Oregon’s federally managed public lands results in an SCC estimate of $ 101 million (100-year GWP) to $226 million (20-year GWP) per year for Oregon.

Forcing the federal agencies to include these social carbon costs in their analysis of any public lands grazing permit authorization would demonstrate that the federal government violates its own EPA standards.

Carbon emissions are only one cost of public lands grazing. Collateral damage includes the killing of predators like wolves, coyotes, bears, and mountain lions to benefit ranchers. Photo George Wuerthner 

Reducing carbon emissions isn’t the only benefit that cessation of livestock grazing would provide. Numerous studies have documented the ongoing ecological costs of livestock grazing, which include pollution of waterways, damage to riparian areas, spread of flammable plants like cheatgrass, social displacement of native herbivores, the killing of native predators and “pests” (prairie dogs, grasshoppers, etc.), transfer of disease from domestic animals to native species, soil compaction, destruction of social crusts, among other social costs to the public.

Damage to riparian areas, the green vegetation along creeks, has a significant impact on western wildlife. Some 70-80% of western species depend on riparian habitat for their survivial. BLM lands, Arizona. Photo George Wuerthner 

For this reason, it is surprising that many environmental organizations, from the Greater Yellowstone Coalition to the Sierra Club, are unwilling to challenge public lands livestock grazing. For instance, the Sierra Club still contends that public lands grazing may be appropriate if it helps wildlife, sequesters carbon or other alleged benefits even while it acknowledges the multiple negative impacts associated with livestock production. None of the presume benefits outweigh the numerous negative impacts including the social carbon costs of continued livestock production. The Club as well as other environmental organizations should unequivocally call for and work for its termination.

The contribution to the food supply of livestock produced on federally managed public lands is trivial; cattle grazed on these public lands account for <1.6% of all US beef production. While this analysis of social cost of carbon only applies to federal lands, it is obvious that private land livestock production is the elephant in the room in terms of carbon costs.

The continued livestock grazing on public lands violates federal mandates to reduce GHG emissions and is a massive subsidy to public lands ranchers.

The Kauffman et al. paper provides more evidence that the termination of domestic livestock use of our public domain is economically and ecologically beneficial to the public.


  1. Richard Popchak Avatar
    Richard Popchak

    Please correct this line towards the end of your informative and well-written piece.

    “Reducing carbon emissions is the only benefit that cessation of livestock grazing would provide.”

    I think you want to insert “not” between “is” and “the.”

  2. Jeff Hoffman Avatar
    Jeff Hoffman

    Cattle grazing has become one of the major ecological harms that humans do, and that’s saying a lot. Cattle are everywhere, and now outweigh native megafauna on Earth. This totally absurd situation shows the insanity of the human race.

    1. Jeff Hoffman Avatar
      Jeff Hoffman

      The drier the climate, the more harm that cattle do. Grazing cattle in deserts is insane, but that description fits humans in general, so …

      A little Sierra Club anecdote: When I ran an Earth First! campaign to remove cattle from a local state park, I asked the local Sierra Club chapter head if we could get some help from them (Earth First! had no financial resources). Her response to me was, “You’re not going to do anything crazy, are you?” And this was at our national Earth First! rendezvous! The good news is that we won the campaign, and now, decades later, the land has mostly recovered from the cattle damage.

  3. midlaj Avatar

    A significant article titled “་Climate, Ecological, and Social Costs of Livestock Grazing on Western Public Lands,” authored by Boone Kauffman, Robert Beschta, Peter Lacy, and Marc Liverman, has been published in Environmental Management. This paper delves into the real carbon expenses associated with public land livestock grazing and advocates for the potential advantages of discontinuing federal land livestock grazing for the general public.

  4. sherry collisi Avatar

    You have forgotten the slaughter of 1,000 wildhorses.Who many groups are fighting to save Greed


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.

Subscribe to get new posts right in your Inbox

George Wuerthner