Voluntary Grazing Permit Retirement Act

Cattle grazing in the Blue Range Wilderness of New Mexico. Photo George Wuerthner

Anyone who has ever worked on public lands livestock issues knows that modifying the negative impacts of ranching operations, much less eliminating them, is nearly impossible. Domestic livestock grazing even occurs in national parks, national monuments, wilderness areas, and other public lands that most people believe are set aside for nature and native wildlife.

The Voluntary Grazing Permit Retirement Act is a proposed solution introduced by Congressmen Adam Smith of Washington and Jared Huffman of California. It has been introduced in previous Congressional sessions but has yet to pass the House and Senate.

Legislation is needed because terminating any grazing privileges is exceedingly difficult.

Occasionally, an environmental group “wins” a lawsuit that forces the managing agency (Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management) to alter its grazing policies, but often. Still, often, this is little more than moving the chairs on the deck of the Titanic—at best, you get some minor adjustments in livestock use and are still stuck with the presence of domestic animals on public lands.

Though grazing on public lands is a privilege (a lease), hence not a right (despite what ranchers say about grazing rights), terminating such privileges is often exceedingly difficult.  One reason for rancher resistance to grazing termination is that public grazing allotments are “attached” to specific private ranchlands. When a private ranch is sold, the public grazing privileges often go with the ranch.

Thus, a public lands grazing allotment adds value to the private ranch. The rancher can profit more from selling their ranch if public land privileges are attached. Some banks will even lend money to a rancher based on their public land grazing privileges. Therefore, there is frequently resistance to any termination from the rancher and perhaps their lender.

Cattle damage to riparian area on BLM lands in Montana’s Centennial Valley. Cattle have trampled streambanks, polluted the water, and removed streamside vegetation. Photo George Wuerthner 

Even where there are well-documented impacts to public resources like water pollution, damage to riparian areas, competition between native herbivores and privately owned livestock, and other impacts, eliminating livestock use is nearly impossible due to the political power of the livestock industry.

Federal agencies will often spend hundreds of thousands, even millions of taxpayer dollars, to modify grazing when terminating all livestock use would have the most public ecological and economic benefits.

Rather than terminate grazing, agencies tend to spend taxpayer funds on “range developments” that prolong livestock use of public lands. Cattle trough and windmill on BLM lands, Utah. Photo George Wuerthner 

Instead of eliminating domestic animals, most federal agencies do all kinds of shenanigans to maintain livestock use, like putting in water pipelines to distribute livestock, fencing riparian areas, changes in season of use, and other mechanisms designed to address environmental concerns without eliminating domestic animals.

One reason for this is job security. Allotments are managed by range conservationists whose jobs would disappear if all grazing were terminated. So, they have a financial incentive to do everything possible to maintain some livestock on an allotment.

Voluntary Grazing Permit Retirement removed livestock from the Boulder White Clouds Wilderness, Idaho. Castle Peak . Photo George Wuerthner

This is where the Voluntary Grazing Permit Retirement legislation comes in.  If passed by Congress, the legislation would allow the permanent termination of a grazing permit. The Voluntary Grazing Permit Retirement policy has been successfully implemented at California’s Death Valley National Park, Utah’s Capitol Reef National Park and Arches National Park, Oregon’s Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, Oregon Caves National Monument and Preserve, and Owyhee Canyonlands and Idaho’s Boulder-White Clouds. In all cases, permit retirement was tied to specific legislation, such as the designation of a national monument or a new wilderness area.

Livestock were eliminated from the Cascades Siskiyou National Monument, Oregon. Photo George Wuerthner 

Funding for permit retirement has come from third-party private sources. After the permittee and funders agree on a price per Animal Unit Month (AUM), the federal agency decides to terminate livestock grazing on those particulate lands.

One reason for federal legislation is that it provides permanence. A new administrator (District Ranger, for example) can’t, at some later date, decide to reissue a grazing permit for that allotment.


Termination of livestock privileges can reduce conflicts with species like the wolf. Photo George Wuerhner 

The Voluntary Grazing Permit Retirement Act legislation aims to make permit retirement available as a potential management tool on all federal grazing lands. The legislation also guarantees that any permits waived before the Act will be permanent. It also terminates any claim to range developments that may exist on the allotments.

While the Voluntary Grazing Permit Retirement Act has apparent benefits for the public, it also provides ranchers greater flexibility in their livestock operations. Ranchers can use any funds from a permit buyout to purchase private lands or pay off debts, consolidate their business, or retire with what grazing activist Andy Kerr calls a “Golden Saddle.”

As good as the proposed legislation is for public lands, some limits are worth mentioning. In order (I suspect) to avoid opposition from ranching interests, the proposed legislation restricts permit termination to not more than 100 grazing permits in the 16 western states and no more than 25 permits in any one state.

Congressman Smith plans to reintroduce the Voluntary Grazing Permit Retirement Act sometime this month. Writing to your representative and asking them to co-sponsor this Act would be helpful.


  1. Tom Pringle Avatar
    Tom Pringle

    So what are currently the largest contiguous cow-free public lands in the West?

    I would guess Death Valley NP is well ahead of Greater Yellowstone and Boulder-White Çlouds.

    What percent of the total possible acreage in lower 48 is currently cow-free? I would guess 1-2%.

  2. Glenn Monahan Avatar
    Glenn Monahan

    And … if grizzly bears show up on private ranch land, they are either killed, or relocated to public lands, which should be a refuge for them. If there is livestock on the public land that a grizzly is harassing, they are usually killed, rather than removing the livestock. In what universe does this make sense?

    This is a lose lose situation for grizzly.

    1. Diane Driscoll Avatar
      Diane Driscoll

      The same applies to wolves (and wild horses/burros)Here in WA state entire wolf packs have been shot & killed because they attacked livestock that was grazing on public lands. Every year thousands of wild horses are brutally rounded up under excuses of “lack of forage” and then thousands more sheep or cattle are put on that same land Federal laws be damned. I worked for Fed resource management for 30 years and the fights with “range managers” was constant…even when the livestock were killing ESA-listed species and/or their habitat.

  3. Jerry Thiessenj Avatar
    Jerry Thiessenj

    Money talks. The only way to make a meaningful dent in the abhorrent domestic livestock problem on public domain is for private money funneled through a central NGO to sweeten the pot as part of government negotiations to acquire grazing permits. In the long run it would be cheap at any price.
    Someone needs to start an organization for the sole purpose of raising private money to reclaim our public lands from the dreadful grip of domestic livestock. count me in.

  4. Luan Pinson Avatar
    Luan Pinson

    Please cosponsor the Voluntary Grazing Permit Retirement Act, it is long over due.

  5. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    What does everyone think about the administration’s plan to reintroduce grizzlies to the North Cascades?

    It’s already caused complaints about ‘endangering rural communities’ and I hope not threats to harm the bears.

    1. Jeff Hoffman Avatar
      Jeff Hoffman

      The Center for Biological Diversity has identified good areas for reintroducing grizzlies to California too. I’m all for it! All native species should be reintroduced wherever possible. If people in the rural communities don’t like the native wildlife, they should move to somewhere else.

  6. Michael Sauber Avatar
    Michael Sauber

    When we talk about the political pressure from the industry we need to be aware that any bank that loans money on a base property with the permit attached, it is an unsecured loan. Lower cattle numbers means less ability to make payments. Those banks fund politicians that return favors.

    1. Jeff Hoffman Avatar
      Jeff Hoffman

      That would explain the outsized power that the cattle industry has. Compared to other industries like banking, fossil fuels, and insurance, the cattle industry has little money, but they have as much power as anyone.

      1. Michael Sauber Avatar
        Michael Sauber

        To explain more.. The west texas federal intermediate credit bank in a weekend formed a “private property rights” foundation and raised a quick million buck which some was then donated to republican NM Senator Pete Domenici and dem NM Senator Jeff Bingamon. Domenici Was, at the time The CHAIR OF THE BUDGET committee, who summoned the Gila Forest Ranger in charge of the wilderness district where the severely overgrazed infamous Diamond Bar allotment was. She initially admitted she was “raked through the coals” (then realized she shouldn’t have said that). Bingaman later helped filibuster grazing reform in the senate. After walking precincts and getting bit by a dog helping Sen Bingaman get elected, I wrote a letter to the editor of the Albuquerque Journal. My last sentence was “at this point I have more respect for the dog that bit me than the one who went to Washington”

        1. Jeff Hoffman Avatar
          Jeff Hoffman

          I’ve lost any respect for all politicians. They’re all bought-off scum, and I don’t mean to insult the nonhuman species. I’ve worked on political campaigns too, even ran one against an environmentally harmful ballot initiative. But the electoral process in this country is so corrupt and unrepresentative that I no longer see any point in doing this kind of thing.

          BTW, lol on the dog comparisons.

  7. sherry collisi Avatar

    Best News I have heard in a long time. It is very unfair to rob our public lands for the future generations. Selfish and greedy. Please stop this Welfare Ranching on Public lands. The public lands belong to all of us and our children And grandchildren.
    Teddy Roosevelt many years ago saw the beauty of our precious landscape.I can’t image what we would have left today if not for him.Right is might and Teddy Roosevelt was right. Another like him we may never see again. But sure hope that the Welfare Cattlemen and BLM,stop.Congress you have the power. use it before it is to late.

    1. Jeff Hoffman Avatar
      Jeff Hoffman

      Part of this is good, but the BS about farmers & ranchers isn’t. Farming & ranching destroy the land and kill native species. Cattle ranching is one of the greatest harms that humans are currently doing to the Earth and native species. Sure, they may prevent even greater greater harms like development, but that’s a lesser-of-evils excuse.

  8. Jeff Hoffman Avatar
    Jeff Hoffman

    It shows how evil & psychotic ranchers are that the vehemently oppose a VOLUNTARY program. I understand the range conservationists concerns, but ranchers should be supporting this. I guess old habits die hard, even really bad ones.

    I also have to mention that when I was an Earth First campaigner, ranchers were the worst people I had to deal with. THE worst! Period. Self-entitled, violent, etc.


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