Ranchers forced into numbers game

  • Cattle

    Steve Collector

Imagine the Western range as a half-billion acre game board. It's not hard; section lines, pasture lines, power lines, irrigation lines, and roads straight as lines subdivide it into as many playing squares as there are players. But it is not chess or checkers. It's a deadly serious game, where the stakes are the health of the land and the livelihood of its people.

The rules are simple: Put as many cattle and sheep on the range as will fit between a rock and a hard place. Ranchers are the most visible players, but they are far from the most culpable. What they do with their cattle and sheep is more complex than simple greed might explain or lack of caring for the land might suggest.

When public lands were snatched from the chaos of the open range, the Forest Service and the BLM-to-be had a brilliant idea: They would muzzle the excesses of livestock by issuing grazing permits to ranchers - official-looking pieces of government paper that would set the numbers of cattle and sheep allowed on federal ranges, and thereby eliminate overgrazing.

Brilliant ideas backfire from time to time, and the grazing permit system is one example. Rather than limiting them, ranchers discovered that the permits were the next best thing to fee simple (unrestricted) title to federal ranges. Ranchers couldn't own the land but they could own, (and if they wanted, trade) their permits to other ranchers. Thanks to this quirk in policy, numbers of livestock, not the land itself, became the economic mainstay of stockmen. Human nature and the grazing system led ranchers to steward the one thing they possessed - not soil and grass, but mere slips of government paper. In the numbers game, the prize is not biological carrying capacity and sustainable living, but political carrying capacity and subsidized living.

The permit system was supposed to stop overgrazing; instead, it fostered it. When permits were first assigned, the land agencies handed out more paper numbers than there was forage for cattle and sheep to eat - about 50 percent more. They stretched nature to its limits and then took it one step beyond. That explains why federal managers and cattlemen have devoted so much time and taxpayer dollars to slugging it out over how many cows should graze the public domain. Agencies have fought to cut grazing permits, and ranchers, fearing loss of the value of their permits, have struggled to preserve them. Both have won, and lost. Cattle numbers on public lands are down by almost 50 percent; yet since breeding programs have created larger animals, cattle weights coming off federal ranges are nearly doubled. Stalemate. At best, range recovery inches forward, and, at worst, chronic overgrazing persists and deepens.

The impasse between agencies and ranchers has altered the rules of the game. Since World War II, one attempted solution has been to spend billions of tax dollars to prop up stocking. The Forest Service spent hundreds of millions in just the 1950s and 1960s to fence, water, seed, chain and spray millions of federal acres to keep grazing permits intact. Land-grant universities kicked in with research convincing a generation of range managers that growing red meat is the best use of public lands. The range improvements they dreamed up, however, had short life spans. Today, in places like Catron County, N.M., decades-old range improvements are in a state of decay, forcing the Forest Service to cut livestock numbers, thus fanning the flames of local sagebrush rebellions.

Much the same has happened on BLM lands. In the Vale District of southeastern Oregon, public ranges were overgrazed by an estimated 40 percent by 1963. Rather than suffer cuts in their permits, ranchers joined with the BLM and Oregon State University to lobby Congress for massive federal dollars for major range "reclamation." All told, over $56 million (1992 dollars) was spent to keep 184 ranchers and their permits afloat. Despite this, and enough new grass to support 17,000 head of cattle, the Vale project is now in ecological shambles. Overstocking worked as long as federal dollars were paying to chain and spray the range and keep the effects of overgrazing at bay. But when the money stopped flowing, things fell apart. Last year, the project reached rock bottom; Vale ranchers received $30,000 to $50,000 apiece in emergency feed payments to make up for the grass that their overgrazed public and private ranges could no longer grow.

Since the heyday of Forest Service and BLM mega-range projects, Congress has spent millions more on experimental stewardship programs, grasshopper and coyote control, weed and brush eradication, emergency feed handouts and sundry other subsidies, all aimed at sustaining livestock numbers. Land-grant universities are doing their share, too. New Mexico State, for example, is spending tax dollars to genetically engineer rumen microorganisms so that cattle can safely graze locoweed, a by-product of overgrazing and the numbers game. Thanks to deep federal pockets and the Cadillac range mentality of land agencies and Western universities, there are more cattle on public lands today than either economics or ecology would dictate. Still, the billions spent to prop up public-land grazing have not helped. Ranching incomes are at historic lows and public-land conditions are mostly static. Only Forest Service and BLM budgets and state and federal funding for land-grant schools are at record highs.

Tragically, the numbers game touches and infects even the best ranchers - those whose livestock numbers are, by choice, well below the capacity of the range and whose management is, by choice, free of public subsidy.

Barbara Cosimati is one of those ranchers. When she bought the grazing permit to the Afton Allotment in southwestern New Mexico, she knew what she was getting: a 26,000-acre, grazed-to-the-ground stretch of BLM wasteland that included a sizable chunk of the Aden Lava Flow Wilderness Study Area. But she knew she could improve the land and was hopeful she could double the numbers on her grazing permit at the same time.

Cosimati's strategy was to understock her allotment. Starting in 1980, and continuing for a decade, conservative grazing worked its magic. Seas of knee-high black grama and hip-high sand dropseed flowed back across ranges once sandpapered of grass.

But, from the start, BLM made it clear that understocking would not be enough; Cosimati would have to intensively develop her rangelands to justify a grazing increase. It's the old siren song: Build more watering holes, erect more fences, spray and seed more rangelands and the carrying capacity will come. BLMers believe this because it's what range professors have hammered into their heads since student days. Barbara Cosimati accepted it because it was the only way she could make her stewardship pay in tangible terms of more cows on her permit. So she did what the experts told her; she spent over $100,000 to build stock ponds and miles of new fences on an allotment that today, thanks to a declining market, is worth less than $150,000.

In late 1985, Cosimati asked the BLM for a temporary increase in grazing use from 130 to 150 head. Despite overwhelmingly favorable monitoring data, the BLM refused, arguing in part that her long-term understocking raised the question "as to whether or not an increase in grazing use is really needed." Two years later Cosimati filed an agency appeal, costing her $50,000 in legal fees. Interior Judge John R. Rampton awarded her a permanent increase to 150 head and granted an additional 52 head pending monitoring results.

Barbara Cosimati's hard work was close to paying off. A grazing permit increase of 72 head would easily cover her legal expenses and defray part of the cost of Cadillac range management. It was time to get down to business. By 1992, she had 170 head on the ground and range conditions were still climbing. But just as she was upping the ante to 190 cows, and then to the 202 allowed by Rampton's decision, drought struck. It was mild in 1993, but by 1994 the area was bone-dry and hot - over 60 days above 100 degrees with barely a hint of rain.

As her neighbors began destocking their ranges in July, Cosimati hesitated. If she left her cattle in place, she knew the grass would be grazed to the ground; if she took them off voluntarily, even in the face of drought, she knew with equal certainty that her action could be held against her - just as the BLM had used her long record of conservative grazing to deny her first request for a stocking increase. She was not naive; she knew that the BLM had bent with the political winds in 1985. In 1994, with her stocking so near the magic number of 202, the agency would surely be buffeted even more by environmentalists opposed to a grazing increase on a prospective wilderness.

In the end, she decided it would be more damaging to her permit aspirations to destock than to hold her cattle on the Afton Allotment and wait - and pray - for summer rains.

Cosimati's crisis was deepened by the BLM's insistence on Cadillac management. More range improvements made it possible for her cattle to mow the grass more efficiently, and more stock ponds meant more complete use of the grass and more overgrazing near the water sources. By the time drought arrived there were no ungrazed areas - forage reserves - left in the Afton Allotment to help her and her cattle weather hard times. By diverting her attention from raising grass to raising range improvements through indebtedness, the BLM had sped up Cosimati's timetable for increasing her permit. Over-capitalization was squeezing her profits. There was no way a 130-head herd could ever pay back a financial burden in infrastructure and legal fees that matched or exceeded the value of her ranch. She needed more cattle on the land to just break even, and she needed them sooner rather than later.

Barbara Cosimati was simply doing what ranchers before her had done: protecting grazing interests by defending paper numbers. It's the incentive of law and the custom of public ranching. It explains her hesitation as drought marched across the Southwestern desert. Fifteen years of permittee caring, BLM oversight and land-grant range science ended in a crescendo of destructive grazing. The circle was complete; the numbers game had been played to the hilt. By the time Cosimati destocked in November, the land looked as it did in 1980 and environmentalists were appealing her request for a 170-head permit. Her worst nightmare had come true.

Cosimati is not the first rancher, nor will she be the last, to be seduced by the numbers game. The irony and tragedy of the Afton Allotment is that she is one of the better, more caring ranchers - a strong, intelligent, and good woman who by all logic should have stayed at arm's length from perverse incentives and alluring subsidies. She escaped the subsidies, but not the incentives. And the fact that she didn't escape says much about the numbers game, its pervasive influence on the ranchers of the public-land West, and the rot that lies at the core of our public-land grazing system.

It tells us that the rules are rigged in favor of overgrazing, and that they will remain that way so long as loyalty to numbers takes precedence over fidelity to the land.

Karl Hess is author of Visions Upon the Land: Man and Nature on the Western Range. Jerry Holechek is professor of range management at New Mexico State University, which is New Mexico's land-grant university.

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