The Bureau of Land Management manages 256 million acres of public lands in the United States and allows livestock grazing on 160 million acres of that land. The Taylor Grazing Act, 43 U.S.C. §315, which was passed in 1934, authorizes the Secretary of the Interior to establish grazing districts and take any necessary steps to protect, improve, and develop the districts. Prior to 1934, the grazing of livestock on public lands was unregulated.
Since the first grazing district was established in 1935, private ranchers have paid the federal government for the privilege of grazing their livestock on public lands. Every year, the Bureau of Land Management authorized the grazing of millions of animal units on public lands. An animal unit is one cow and her calf, one horse, or five sheep or goats, although most of the livestock are cattle and sheep. Permits usually run for ten years.
Environmental, taxpayer, and wildlife advocates object to the program for different reasons.
While some foodies extol the virtues of grass-fed beef, livestock grazing is a serious environmental concern. According to environmental activist Julian Hatch, public lands are so depleted of vegetation, the cattle's diet is supplemented with barrels of molasses mixed with nutrients and vitamins. The supplementation is necessary because the cattle have depleted the more nutritious vegetation and are now eating sagebrush.
Additionally, waste from the livestock degrades water quality, the concentration of livestock around bodies of water leads to soil compaction, and the depletion of vegetation leads to soil erosion. These problems threaten the entire ecosystem.
According to the National Public Lands Grazing Campaign, the livestock industry is subsidized by federal and state funding through “below-market grazing fees, emergency feed programs, low-interest federal farm loans, and many other taxpayer-funded programs.” Taxpayer dollars are also used to address the environmental problems caused by ranching and the health issues created by the consumption of beef.
Livestock grazing on public lands also displaces and kills wildlife. Predators like bears, wolves, coyotes, and cougars are killed because they sometimes prey on livestock.
Also, because the vegetation is depleted, BLM claims that wild horses are overpopulated and has been rounding up the horses and offering them for sale/adoption. Only 37,000 wild horses still roam these public lands, but BLM wants to round up even more. Comparing 37,000 horses to the 12.5 million animal units the BLM allows for grazing on public lands, the horses comprise less than .3% (three-tenths of a percent) of the animal units on those lands.
Aside from the general environmental degradation issues, ranchers erect fences that obstruct the movement of wildlife, reducing access to food and water, and isolating subpopulations.
What Is the Solution?
While the NPLGC points out that relatively little meat is produced by ranchers on public lands and advocates buying out the ranchers who hold permits, this solution focuses on continuing the meet the American demand for beef and fails to consider animal rights issues or the environmental impacts of growing crops to feed cows in feedlots. The solution is to go vegan.