As the demographics of the West change, sportsmen and women can feel good about supporting working ranches that responsibly graze their livestock on public lands—these private landowners and land managers are key partners in conservation and often facilitate hunting and fishing access, unlike the condo complexes that might pop up without them
Private lands make up about 60 percent of the U.S., while hundreds of millions of acres are grazed by livestock. And though it may seem like sportsmen and women only have eyes for public lands, these private lands can also offer critical seasonal habitats and connectivity for fish and wildlife, as well as recreation access.
Working ranches are an incredibly important part of this public-private land fabric—not to mention the Western economy and way of life. But the reliance on public lands for grazing has remained a hot-button issue even after unregulated grazing was curbed by federal law decades ago.
Some of you may immediately think of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and the armed confrontation over his failure to pay grazing fees to the federal government for the use of public lands. Others may have heard groups calling for the outright abolishment of all public land grazing. But smack dab in between these opposing and polarizing views lie most sportsmen and women and tens of thousands of hardworking families who own and manage millions of acres vital to fish and wildlife.
So why does this legitimate use of public lands still get a bad rap?
A Brief History of Grazing in the West
Livestock grazing on both private and public lands dates back to the homesteading era and westward expansion. As iconic and integral as ranching is to the West’s ethos and economy, grazing has also contributed to a long history of controversy and debate over public lands management, from the era of unmanaged sheep and cattle grazing after the Civil War to the Sagebrush Rebellion in the 1970s into the present day.
After decades of unregulated livestock use in the West led to overgrazing and degradation of rangeland and water resources, Congress passed the Taylor Grazing Act in 1934. Today, livestock grazing is much more heavily regulated, yet remains a hot topic, as grazing plays into the complex multiple-use management scheme that must address increasing demands on our federal public lands from a growing human population.
At the heart of this perpetual debate lies a wide range of issues surrounding private property valuation and rights, water quality and usage, endangered species, access to public lands, and habitat for fish and wildlife, among other things. Across Western landscapes, private lands often occur in a “checkerboard” arrangement with federal and state lands, further complicating issues and creating unique challenges for multiple-use management.
Despite the complexities of multiple-use management, maintaining economically viable ranches is of vital importance. The loss of family-owned ranches might mean development on some pretty special landscapes, loss of habitat for native species, or the end of “handshake agreements” for hunting and fishing access.
Not an Either-Or Proposition
So, why is public-land grazing so necessary to keeping these private-lands ranchers in business and on the land? To remain financially solvent, many ranches rely on their own acres AND federal grazing permits. Most of the time, they can’t have one without the other.
The Taylor Grazing Act put tens of millions of acres of public land into grazing districts and smaller units, or allotments. Ranchers apply for renewable 10-year permits to graze on these allotments. Each permittee must own their own base property near the allotment to be eligible and must pay for their use. So, not just anyone can graze their cattle on public lands.
Most Western ranches need both their deeded property and their federal grazing allotments to make an operation economically viable. If ranchers can’t sustain their businesses from the land they own and federal lands they have access to, most will undoubtedly hit a breaking point and sell to a willing buyer. And the sale of existing properties can present new challenges to sportsmen and women.
Private Lands in Other Hands
Much of what happens if a ranch must be sold depends on whether it has a perpetual or long-term easement in place, who buys the land, what their objectives are, and other factors driving the purchase and existing land condition. But a great reason to support responsible ranchers with public land resources is to avoid the risk of what could come next if they sell their property.
While many chunks of land would never be carved up for parking lots, luxury homes, condominiums, commercial real estate, or other development, sub-division of large tracts of land indeed is a real and ominous threat already pervasive across the West. Subdividing private lands does not usually bode well for wildlife conservation or our hunting and fishing access.
Land may transfer hands to another ranching operation—possibly even one with a stronger emphasis on voluntary conservation—but a new landowner could also choose not to re-enroll in a public access program or might move forward with converting wildlife-friendly rangeland to cropland.
The future of private land depends on many things that wind up looking like a roll of the dice in Vegas compared to keeping working lands in knowledgeable working hands.
Partners in Conservation
Landowners are critical to conservation success and thus must be considered necessary partners in conservation. They shouldn’t have to feel threatened by species restoration plans or other resource conservation efforts. Conservation should present opportunities for landowners to keep their lands productive and thriving for both livestock and fish and wildlife.
Ranchers are already doing on-the-ground work through programs like the Sage Grouse Initiative, Partners for Conservation, Working Lands for Wildlife, and Farm Bill conservation programs like Voluntary Public Access.
There can be negative impacts on habitat from improper livestock grazing, and there will likely continue to be issues and disagreements among private landowners and public land users on how public land should be managed. We are all equally accountable to natural resources held in the public trust, whether you own cattle, land, or a hunting license.
Assuming the worst of landowners or attacking their interests does nothing to further conservation. In most cases, they are the worthy stewards of their own lands and our public acres. And losing working ranchlands to development would not bode well for fish, wildlife, or sportsmen in the long run.
Recent angst over sage-grouse conservation, leasing in migration corridors, and water issues should encourage us to strengthen our relationships with all stakeholders interested in finding common ground for conservation and use of our public lands. That includes ranchers who rely on public lands for grazing. The path forward for public and private land management that will sustain conservation is one of continued collaboration and partnership—not polarization.
Aldo Leopold once said: “Conservation will ultimately boil down to rewarding the private landowner who conserves the public interest.” As the contemporary adage goes, the TRCP supports keeping “working lands in working hands.” We will continue working with our organizational partners, plus businesses, landowners, and decision-makers, to ensure that our landscapes provide all Americans quality places to hunt and fish.
Top photo by USDA NRCS Montana.