Category Archives: Economics

Cow Crud

Journalist and Torrey House Press author Jonathan Thompson publishes The Land Desk, a superb commentary on the West. You should subscribe. Even though I am familiar with the ongoing, nonsensical destruction of our public lands by private cow, I am still dismayed when I see the facts and the magnitude of this existential farce as Jonathan presents below.

Read on:

Data Dump: Cows, cows, cows…
… on the aridifying public lands

“The vast San Juan ranges, with a plentiful supply of choice feed, were not to remain such for many years. Like everything else that goes uncontrolled or without supervision these ranges were used selfishly with the present only in mind [leaving them] in an almost irreparable condition.”

—Franklin D. Day, “The Cattle Industry of San Juan County, Utah, 1875-1900”

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A couple of years ago, my wife Wendy and I traveled to Lake Kerkini, a reservoir on the Struma River in Greece near the Bulgarian border, known for the abundance of migratory birds. It wasn’t until we arrived that we found out it was known for something else, too: water buffalo. Everywhere we went people were selling buffalo milk, cheese, ice cream, and even meat, all of which were delicious. 

Finally, while trying to get a gander at a flock of flamingoes on the reservoir, we encountered a herd of the buffalo meandering up a canal, murky water up to their haunches, chomping away on thick forage along the water’s edge. They looked like fat, four-legged, breathing hunks of obsidian. And while I’m no reader of bovine minds, they also looked pretty damned happy. 

I didn’t think about those buffalo and their happiness again until this spring, as I drove through a dust event on the drought-addled Great Sage Plain in southeastern Utah. Not far from the road a herd of cattle stood in the hot sun, eating what appeared to be a lunch of fine dirt seasoned with a pinch of cheat grass. The landscape around them, having been grazed year after year for decades without rest, was thrashed. And it occurred to me then that these critters were something like cousins to those Greek buffaloes that got to spend their days wallowing in water and mud and feasting on actual grass and I thought, Damn, maybe these cows don’t belong out here in the desert? 

You can probably see where I’m going with this. Yet, lest someone wants to frame me as a cattle-mutilator, let me be clear: I’m no cow-hater. Not even close. I like a juicy burger as much as the next person, my grandparents were dairy farmers in the Animas Valley, my cousins run a slaughterhouse and meat market, and seeing a few cows lazing around in a tall-grass pasture makes me happy. 

But on the public lands of the arid West there really are no such pastures, in part because it’s dry, but also because a century-and-a-half of relentless livestock grazing has denuded the landscape of its native grasses. When you combine that with the aridification of vast swaths of the West, you get an ecosystem in peril and a bunch of cows that appear to be yearning to take a trip to a lake in Greece, or at least to some grassy field in Iowa. And if they can’t find that they’ll be drawn to the closest simulation of that: a sensitive desert riparian system, to which they will quickly lay waste. 

I’ll let you wrangle over whether we should stop eating beef altogether or whether livestock grazing should be banned from all public lands, some public lands, or just managed in a more sustainable fashion. But to help inform your wrangling, the Land Desk has rounded up a herd of statistics and crowded them into the data corral so that you can throw your mental lasso around the ones you like. 

AUM = Animal Unit Month = one cow and her calf for one month

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1,000 pounds: The weight of an average beef cow. Some ranchers in the Southwest prefer smaller breeds more suited to the desert, such as corrientes or criollos, which weigh around 800 pounds. 

80: Percentage of a cow’s body weight the cow will eat in one month. This can increase in desert environments in which a cow must walk further to reach forage.

20 million: Number of cattle and calves (of all breeds) in the 11 Western states. 

4.4 billion: Pounds of methane emitted by all of those cows each year.

$2.5 billion: Total amount of livestock subsidies paid by the federal government to ranchers and farmers in the 11 Western states between 1995 and 2020. 

8.07 million: Number of AUMs for cattle authorized by the Bureau of Land Management for Western states in 2019. This does not include grazing on Forest Service lands or non-cattle livestock. 

$1.35 per AUM: Current grazing fee for federal lands and the minimum possible under federal law. In other words, that’s how much it costs a rancher to put one cow and calf out on public lands for a month, during which they will eat between 600 and 900 pounds of forage. 

$6.10; $4.85; $20.10: Minimum fee per AUM for grazing on Utah state land; New Mexico state land; and non-irrigated private land (estimated average), respectively. 

$15.9 million: Revenues to the BLM from grazing fees (for all livestock categories) in 2020.

$105.9 million: Amount budgeted to the Department of Interior for rangeland management in 2020, meaning the taxpayers are subsidizing grazing operations to the tune of $90 million per year. 

15,300: Number of cattle, including calves, in San Juan County, Utah, at the beginning of this year. 

15,308: Number of people living in San Juan County, Utah, as of July 2019. 

106,645: Number of AUMs in effect within the boundaries of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument when it was established in 1996.

106,202: Number in effect 20 years later. 

50,469: Number of AUMs in effect across 20 separate grazing allotments in Bears Ears National Monument when it was established in 2016. The monument proclamation not only grandfathered in all existing grazing leases, but also left the door open to new ones. 

15,000: Acres of public land in Harney County, Oregon, that will be sprayed by air with diflubenzuron, a pesticide, to kill mormon crickets and grasshoppers to improve livestock grazing—on the taxpayer’s tab.

62,537: Number of coyotes killed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services Program in 2020, often because the coyotes threatened livestock. 

11,732: Number of “events” recorded by Wildlife Services in which wildlife threatened beef cattle and calves in 2020—usually resulting in the death of said wildlife, such as: Badgers, Bats, Black Bears, Grizzly Bears, Beavers, Blackbirds, Bobcats, Feral cats, Coyotes, Crows, Bald Eagles, Golden Eagles, Foxes, Mountain Lions, Porcupines, Skunks, Feral Swines, Gray/Timber Wolves, and Mexican Gray Wolves. 

25,400 beavers; 685 bobcats; 276 mountain lions; 381 Timber/gray wolves; 5 Mexican gray wolves: Number of each species killed by the Wildlife Services Program in 2020 for all reasons.  

943: Number of feral chickens killed. 

Oh, yeah, and then there’s that alfalfa in the drying Colorado River Basin problem to consider.

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Flummoxed by the dark

From a recent letter to a conservationist friend:

Our recent time with you in the cow trashed wilds has me thinking. All the time. I have tied myself into a knot.

I am working on writing some short pieces on economics and on the cowboy myth for a grazing coalition’s new website. I piled up and reread many of my sources on the subjects, particularly economics, going all the way back to Bernard DeVoto in Harper’s from the 30’s. I have discovered nothing new, but I am feeling paralyzed by the absurdities. Economically, nobody directly involved wins on public lands livestock grazing. Not even the rancher. And economically public lands livestock grazing is utterly unnecessary to the nation. But reading all the material has vividly brought home that despite the absurdity, nothing has changed in 25 years, not even in 75 years. In fact, it is getting worse. The extractors have gained power.

Look what the cowboy has done to our land. Makes me wonder appreciatively what people are doing to the cows.

Looking at this fight from a distance, I would not want to be in the ranchers’ place. They produce nothing of significance. They require immense subsidy. They do much more damage than good. They are a puny minority working against the interests of the vast majority, a majority whom they depend on to subsidize their absurdity. And yet they prevail with an ever-tighter iron fist.

From our point of view, we need to reconcile to the fact that it is the definition of insanity to keep doing the same thing and expect a different outcome.

We must do something different. I don’t know what it is.

Not that I know what to do about it, but it is slowly becoming clearer to me that, as in so many other areas, the hidden, unseen problem is the amount of power we have ceded to corporations in the last 100 years. In this case, it is the extractors powered by the likes of the Kochs, and the rural banks using escrow waivers dubiously based on public lands grazing permits to shore up their balance sheets (as you point out). I feel a little like astronomers must have when they realized there is something big out there that we are not seeing. They called it “dark.”

Shit, man.

Mark Bailey

Cows, not Trees, are the Problem

We are bulldozing our public lands for a few very privileged private ranchers.

Utah’s state symbol might as well be the cowpie. We turn ourselves inside out making sure they are everywhere, all the time. In campgrounds, in national parks and monuments, in the forests, on the steppes, in our streams, all down the roads, and right there, next to your favorite picnic table. Cowpies. One might wonder why.

cowpie- Utah state symbol
Utah’s state symbol

Continue reading Cows, not Trees, are the Problem

We are way upside down

Upside down

Our public lands could be so much better. So easily. But we manage them in an upside down fashion.

Instead of managing the land for its intrinsic value as a natural landscape for the benefit of the vast majority of the public whom owns the land, we manage them for a noisy, tiny, belligerent, special interest group. The majority of us end up financing the degradation of our own lands. It is dumb of us. We don’t need to continue.

The main threat to the health of the land in the West, hard to see although it is everywhere, is public lands ranching. Nothing does more damage to public lands than public lands ranching. Continue reading We are way upside down

Cancelling Edward Abbey’s Grazing Permit

aerial confluence price
Confluence of the Green and Price Rivers, taken one handed by the author/pilot from his airplane.  Not a good place for cows.

Yes, that Edward Abbey and yes, he did hold a Bureau of Land Management grazing permit.

In the fall of 1979, I moved to Price, Utah, taking the job of Assistant Area Manager for BLM’s Price River Resource Area. One of my duties was supervising the range management program on 1.8 million acres of public land in Carbon and Emery counties, and an early task was examining case files of the 87 ranchers holding grazing permits on 113 grazing allotments in the area. Permittee files were arranged alphabetically by name, and the first one in the top drawer was Edward Abbey. I immediately asked the range conservationist, Michele Abbey (no relation), if the file was for the Edward Abbey. She assured me it was and I took the file back to my desk for perusal. Continue reading Cancelling Edward Abbey’s Grazing Permit

The Single Best Idea for America’s Best Idea

Put an end to public land livestock grazing

Utah is 90 percent urban. Much of the West is the same. Yet it is run politically as though it is mostly rural and agricultural. Most Utahns live along the urban Wasatch Front from Ogden to Provo. The Wasatch Mountains bordering the Front are in the U.S. Wasatch National Forest. Even though the Wasatch forests receive traffic like a major national park with millions of visitors per year, these forests are in the best shape of any of the national forests in the state. The reason? No cows. No sheep. No barbed wire. The public would never stand for it.

The rest of the state is a different matter. A majority of the land in Utah is public and most public land is run for and by ranchers, used up and abused by their private livestock. As a result these open lands are in sorry shape, continually overgrazed, constantly mismanaged. The land could be so much more beautiful. Instead, it is hammered, more than we know. And there is no good reason for it. Certainly not an economic one. Only a lack of public awareness allows this travesty to persist. Continue reading The Single Best Idea for America’s Best Idea

Cowpie camping

February 2, 2018, San Rafael Swell

My wife, Kirsten Allen, and I spent the last weekend in January in the San Rafael Swell, BLM managed land in central Utah. Anywhere else in the country and this area would be a national park. But in the lineup of spectacular landscapes in Utah the Swell has not made the cut. Yet.

We drove in from Castle Dale, a Mormon hamlet northwest of the Swell. The road in is all but paved. Granted it was January, but we were still a bit surprised to have the place all to ourselves. And surprised to see a visitor center and Old Spanish Trail installation on the way in to Buckhorn Wash.

San Rafael Swell visitor center

One of the reasons the Swell is not a park is the resistance to public lands by rural county commissioners. Of course, Utah’s fundamentally zealous elected federal officials, all who are Mormon, are furiously working to grab public lands for their own devices as well, but the movement starts with the counties. And most of the county commissioners are ranchers or have an affinity to ranching.

Agriculture makes up less than one percent of Utah’s gross domestic product. Ranching is just a fraction of agriculture. And yet most of the state is grazed. Nothing is harder on the arid public lands of the West than private livestock grazing. Most of the land is used for grazing, the economics are minimal, the ecological costs are high, and grazing fee has once again been lowered for 2018 to $1.41 per cow/calf pair per month. The price to camp, right on the river, in the heart of the Swell, is only $6.00 per night ($180/month, were you allowed to stay that long). But you would not want to camp in this otherwise gorgeous, federally developed campground. It is full of cows and ankle deep in cowpies.


BLM Picnic Area
You use the restroom. Cows use the picnic area. Enjoy your picnic.

Apparently the BLM is letting the local grazing permittee use the campground as a stockyard.


The federally developed facilities in the Swell are excellent. The local treatment of the resource is abhorrent. Why do we go to the taxpayer expense to create a top notch visitor experience for the public and then foul it with some private rancher’s “hooved locusts?”

The elephant in the room is a cow

My wife and I are both sixth generation Utahns. We own homes in both Salt Lake and Wayne counties. We were married in the Capitol Reef National Park outdoor amphitheater in 2010. Together we cherish the natural landscape of Utah, our pretty, great state. Except for one thing. We have become sensitized to the damage done by livestock grazing on public lands. Our pioneer ancestors worked hard to survive in the arid country they were charged with settling, and we admire the determination and pluck it required. But public lands ranching doesn’t make sense anymore, and the more we learn about what our forests could be, the more we see the degradation–and absence–of plant communities and wildlife habitat. There is hardly anywhere we can go outside of the wilderness areas of the Wasatch where we don’t see it. This bothers us so much we started a publishing company in part to shed more light on public land mismanagement. We also volunteered with Mary O’Brien and the Grand Canyon Trust to do grazing damage assessment and now serve on the board of directors of Wild Utah Project with Allison Jones.

I borrowed the elephant part of the title to this blog piece from our neighbor in Torrey, Chip Ward, from something he said in a recent Tom’s Dispatch post about beaver habitat destruction by ranchers. Kirsten and I feel that if there is one simple, single thing that would most improve the natural landscape of Utah it would be the reduction of public land livestock grazing. It is everywhere yet its economic benefits are miniscule and for only a very few. Currently, 97% of the Dixie, Fishlake, and Manti-La Sal National Forests in southern Utah are actively grazed by livestock. But only one percent of Utah’s gross domestic product, or economic output, is agriculture, and only a small sliver of that is from public land grazing. Yet that one percent of economic production uses 82 percent of Utah’s water and almost all of the public land. Predators such as wolves, key to ecologic balance, have been eliminated. Others like coyotes, and now even crows, are hunted down by the state. Beavers have been virtually outlawed in Garfield County, just south of Wayne. Aspen, willow, and cottonwood growth have been stunted by livestock browsing.  The problem is conceptually easy to fix, but it goes largely ignored. When it isn’t ignored, reform is blocked by tiny but powerful special interest groups. In the West, the iconic cowboy and his cow remain mythical and sacred. Like the king with no clothes, the public land is exposed and much the worse for it.