Ranchers pay just $1.35 a month to graze cattle on public lands and national forests. You couldn’t feed a cat or dog for 10 times that amount.

cattle grazing

What animal could survive on $1.35 worth of food a month?

Certainly not your average housecat, which can eat up to $45 worth of food every 30 days.

So why, then, do cattle and other livestock in the U.S. get to graze on public lands for a month at a time for roughly the price of two cans of Fancy Feast?

The shocking thing is, ranchers now pay even less than they used to. Earlier this year the Trump administration lowered the monthly fee for grazing on public lands and national forests from $1.41 to $1.35 — the lowest price allowed by law.

The fee covers one “animal month” — 30 days of grazing — for each cow, or cow with calf. The same fee applies for every five sheep or goats.

These grazing fees — collected by the Bureau of Land Management — brought in only $16 million in 2018 (before the monthly fee was lowered). That sum doesn’t even cover the costs to administer the program or the environmental degradation caused by livestock grazing on public lands.

“BLM’s own records reveal that much of the sagebrush West is in severely degraded condition due to excessive commercial livestock grazing,” Kirsten Stade, advocacy director for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, said in a press release when the new fees were announced. “Lowering already ultra-low grazing fees only encourages more abuse of public rangelands.”

How many livestock animals are we talking about? That’s hard to say. Last year the website The Daily Pitchfork calculated that about 1.9 million “cattle equivalents” (a number that represents multiple types and ages of livestock) feed on public lands. Those numbers are hard to verify because BLM has since moved or removed all of the files that were used to compile the Daily Pitchfork’s reports, as well as related government reports from the Congressional Research Service.

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BLM “page not found” retrieved May 16, 2019

The numbers also do not include so-called “trespass ranchers” like Cliven Bundy, who graze their livestock on public lands without paying required fees.

What’s the solution to this problem? Raising the fees would be a good start. PEER reports that the grazing fee on private lands in 16 western states is currently $22.60 a month — still not quite enough to feed a cat, but more in line with actual costs. Raising the fees even higher might encourage ranchers to find new ways to raise their animals instead of relying on subsidized use of public lands — and to protect fragile habitats in the process.

Dipika Kadaba

is an ecologist who uses data visualization and design to communicate environmental issues in her role as The Revelator's visual storyteller. Her interdisciplinary work originates in her background in environmental health research as a veterinarian, a graduate degree in conservation science, and a lifetime spent creating webcomics and animations for fun.

John R. Platt  

is the editor of The Revelator. An award-winning environmental journalist, his work has appeared in Scientific American, Audubon, Motherboard, and numerous other magazines and publications. His “Extinction Countdown” column has run continuously since 2004 and has covered news and science related to more than 1,000 endangered species. He is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and the National Association of Science Writers. John lives on the outskirts of Portland, Ore., where he finds himself surrounded by animals and cartoonists.