Federal-lands ranching: A half-century of decline

How grazing fell from its Western pedestal — and fueled Sagebrush Rebellion.

 

One of the prime drivers of the 45-year-old Sagebrush Rebellion, the movement to take control of public lands from the federal government, is the sense that rural Western ranchers are bullied by forces beyond their control. That narrative remains compelling, in part because it’s true. Since the 1950s, the ranching industry has been battered by market consolidation, rising operational costs, drought and climate change. Meanwhile, the amount of grazing allowed on federal lands has dramatically fallen. Bureau of Land Management livestock authorizations dropped from over 18 million animal unit months in 1953 to about 8 million in 2014.

Political rhetoric often blames the decline entirely on environmental regulation. But while the 1970s legislative changes have had an impact, there’s a more complex set of forces at work. The market for materials like lamb and wool fell after World War II, for example. Urban development became a factor as the feds sold off land to private buyers. Feedlots proliferated in the 1950s*, squeezing smaller ranchers out of the market, and grazing fees rose. Then the advent of range science — which aims to use a coherent scientific method to determine how much grazing the land can sustain — changed everything.

Since then, drought has forced ranchers to sell off animals that their allotments can no longer support. What was then the costliest drought in the nation’s history hit Montana, Idaho and Wyoming particularly hard in the late 1980s, causing $39 billion in damages altogether. The 2002 dry spell, which sparked what was, at the time, one of the biggest fire seasons in Western history, pushed more cattle off the land. The current dry spell has also reduced livestock numbers, particularly in California and Nevada. The effects of drought can linger for years, as ranchers labor to restock, and replacement livestock from other regions struggle, sometimes unsuccessfully, to adapt to a new landscape. And once grazing levels are down, federal agencies historically have “made a habit of not letting them go back up,” says Leisl Carr-Childers, an American West and environmental historian.  

BLM and USFS early stocking rates were difficult to measure accurately, as federal policies gave ranchers the incentive to report no more and no fewer animals than they were officially permitted. Read on for a look at 50 years of grazing data, from decades of U.S. Forest Service and BLM reports.

Hover over the individual agency lines to view additional information about what caused fluctuations in AUMs and to see number of AUMs by year. Click the reset button below at left in order to return to the original view.

GRAZING BY BLM ADMINISTRATIVE DISTRICT 
The following graphs show changes in AUMs over time in each BLM administrative district. Most of these districts align with geographic states, but some include multiple states within a district. Montana, for instance, includes the Dakotas. New Mexico includes Texas, though there is little significant grazing on BLM land in Texas. Click on the map to the right to choose which district to view. If you see anything interesting in these graphs that could help explain historic grazing fluctuations, .

Hover over the individual state lines to view the AUMs for each year. To see the data for a single state or administrative region, select the state name from the list to the left. View the boundaries of the administrative regions in the map below at right.

GRAZING IN NEVADA
Ranchers who depend on federal lands are a small fraction of the national livestock industry, and yet they continue to play a central role in political discourse in the West. Nevada is deeply enmeshed in Sagebrush Rebellion politics, and its rocky grazing history may have encouraged that. Nevada sheep ranchers were hit particularly hard by the post-World War II decline in wool demand. Polyester, the “magic” fabric that needed no ironing, arrived in 1951 and further cut demand. The Las Vegas-area boom increased in the 1950s and encouraged more private homeowners to purchase BLM land. The Department of Defense has also withdrawn grazing lands for weapons testing. Environmental regulations accelerated the livestock decline on federal lands in Clark County, in particular. When the desert tortoise was listed as threatened in 1990, The Nature Conservancy and The Conservation Fund, working with the county, bought out 16 BLM grazing permits from local ranchers over a decade. That left just one stockman with a significant herd of cattle in the area: Cliven Bundy. In 2014, Shawna Cox, his secretary and fellow sagebrush rebel, published a book about him: Last Rancher Standing.

Notes on sourcing and methodology:

  • This data originated from BLM and USFS annual reports.
  • BLM and USFS early stocking rates were difficult to measure accurately, as federal policies gave ranchers the incentive to report no more and no fewer animals than they were officially permitted, which may have differed from actual cattle on the range.
  • Agencies first measured “actually grazed” territory in the ’50s and ’60s by trudging onto rangelands and counting cattle; because of the method’s difficulty, they later began measuring based on billed AUMs.
  • Before 1977, the Forest Service measured by animal-month, so those numbers have been converted to be consistent with animal-unit-month. We followed the agency’s recommendations and multiplied the early numbers by a factor of 1.2. However, this is not an exact conversion.
  • The average weight of a cow has increased since the early 20th century, which means each AUM may have a potentially higher environmental impact.
  • Forest Service data for 1992 and 1999 are unavailable. 

*Clarification: Feedlots put a strain on small ranchers who used federal rangelands in the early and mid-20th century, but later, it was the increased market power of meat packers that squeezed both small ranchers and feedlots out of business. 

This reporting was done with support from Stanford University’s Bill Lane Center for the American West. Read more of our Sagebrush Rebellion coverage.

High Country News Classifieds
  • MEMBERSHIP DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement: Membership Director Job Title: Membership Director Supervisor: Executive Director Classification: Full-time exempt Location: Boise, ID Job Overview Winter Wildlands Alliance is seeking a...
  • IMPROVED LOT
    Private road, hillside, views. Well, pad, septic, 99 sq.ft. hut. Dryland permaculture orchard. Wildlife. San Diego--long growing season
  • STEWARDSHIP SPECIALIST
    San Isabel Land Protection Trust seeks experienced person to manage its 133 conservation easements in south-central Colorado.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Executive Director Position Announcement POSITION TITLE: Executive Director ORGANIZATION: Friends of Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument REPORTING TO: Board of Directors LOCATION: Ashland, OR POSTING CLOSES: March...
  • ARIZONA CONSERVATION CORPS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Arizona Conservation Corps is seeking a Program Director in Flagstaff or Tucson
  • UNIQUE INVESTMENT OPPORTUNITY
    Profitable off-the-grid business located 2 miles from Glacier National Park. Owner has 6 years operating experience. Seeking investor or partner for business expansion and enhancement....
  • NEW MEXICO PROPERTY - SILVER CITY
    20 acres, $80,000. Owner financing, well, driveway, fencing possible, very private, sensible covenants, broker owned. Contact - 575-534-7955 or [email protected]
  • GRANT WRITER
    "We all love this place we call Montana. We believe that land and water and air are not ours to despoil, but ours to steward...
  • COMMUNICATIONS COORDINATOR
    ABOUT US: "This thriving citizens organization exemplifies the ideal of public involvement in public processes." - Billings Gazette At Northern Plains, we believe that true...
  • ST. LAWRENCE UNIVERSITY - ASSISTANT DIRECTOR IN THE OUTDOOR PROGRAM
    To view the complete position description please visit: http://employment.stlawu.edu. St. Lawrence University is an Equal Opportunity Employer.
  • TRAIL CREW & ASSISTANT TRAIL CREW LEADERS
    SEEKING TALENTED TRAIL WORK LEADERS The Pacific Crest Trail Association, headquartered in Sacramento, California is dedicated to protecting, preserving and promoting the Pacific Crest National...
  • SEASONAL SAN JUAN RANGERS
    Seeking experienced crew members to patrol Colorado's most iconic mountain wilderness.
  • REMOTE SITKA ALASKA FLOAT HOUSE VACATION RENTAL
    Vacation rental located in calm protected waters 8 miles from Sitka, AK via boat with opportunities to fish and view wildlife. Skiff rental also available.
  • DEVELOPMENT AND ADVOCACY DIRECTOR
    Provide stewardship and protection for the Great Burn wildlands along the Montana-Idaho stateline. This position is based in Missoula, MT, where a river runs through...
  • LISA MACKEY PHOTOGRAPHY
    Fine Art Gicle Printing. Photo papers, fine art papers, canvas. Widths up to 44". Art printing by an artist.
  • WILDERNESS CONSERVATION CORPS - OREGON
    The Siskiyou Mountain Club is hiring interns for the 2020 Field Season. Interns utilize non-mechanized tools to complete trail restoration and maintenance while gaining job...
  • EXPERT LAND STEWART
    Available for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojadigital.net.
  • CONSERVATIONIST? IRRIGABLE LAND?
    Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Colorado Plateau Natural & Human History Field Seminars. Lodge, river, hiking options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Specializing in native seeds and seed mixes for western states.