« Return to this article

Know the West

Interactive timeline: Livestock grazing in the West

Whether grazing on public land is a ‘right’ or a ‘privilege’ is one of the region’s most contentious issues. Here’s why.


Battles over who should be able to graze livestock on the vast stretches of public land in Western states have raged for over 150 years. And while public-lands ranching has rarely been very lucrative for individual ranchers (the majority of US-produced beef ultimately comes from corporate cattle production), grazing remains a major political flashpoint in the rural West. Tied up in the grazing debate is whether the federal government should have jurisdiction over public lands at all. In fact, today’s movement to transfer lands to state control has deep roots that evolved concurrently with disputes over grazing policy.

At the core of these age-old disputes is whether grazing is a “right.” Federal laws have always described grazing on public land as a privilege, but there is also a long history of permits being tied to property. And therein lies the problem.