Private ranchers who use public lands will soon pay the government less money, thanks to a federal fee change announced Wednesday.
The U.S Interior Department is lowering its monthly grazing fee from $1.41 per animal unit (equivalent to one cow and calf, one horse, five sheep or five goats) to $1.35 per animal unit month.
The reduced rate, which takes effect March 1, is the lowest federal law allows. It applies to livestock grazing on public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management and the USDA Forest Service.
Almost 85 percent of Nevada land is owned by the government, much of it managed by the BLM.
In a press release, a BLM director characterized the federal grazing fee change as a commitment to “strong relationships with the ranching community.”
Conservation groups have long argued that government commitment to ranchers comes at the expense of native animals and the health of rangelands, which studies have shown are overgrazed.
“Lowering already ultra-low grazing fees only encourages more abuse of public rangelands,” said Kirsten Stade, advocacy director for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, in a joint press release alongside Western Watersheds Project, Center for Biological Diversity and WildEarth Guardians.
A 2016 report found average monthly grazing fees on private lands to be $22.60 per animal unit.
The conservation groups note that federal grazing fees were set decades ago and have not kept pace with either inflation or changes in the cattle industry such as the average weight of a slaughterhouse cow, which is 400 lbs heavier today than in 1974. If only inflation were factored in, the grazing rate would be $9.47 per animal unit month — still less than half of what private landowners charge.
“Federal agencies should be charging fair-market value for commercial livestock grazing on western public lands, and only allowing livestock at levels and in places where major environmental impacts can be prevented,” said Chris Krupp of WildEarth Guardians in a press release. “With the fee formula set by statute, Congress must step in to reform public lands grazing.”