In her High Country News column that appeared in last week’s Moab Sun News, Andy Rieber gets one conclusion right, but her other claims are at best misleading (“Keep ranchers on the land, and it stays open,” June 16-22, 2016 Moab Sun News).
She admits that ranchers pay $2.11 per cow/ calf pair (or five ewes/ lambs) per month on BLM or Forest Service lands, but would pay $18.40 for the same on private land. But then she claims that “maintaining fencing, water development and invasive weed treatment” bring costs up for the rancher. In reality, you, the public, pay for most of that fencing and those water developments and invasive weed treatments. (Plus, weeds are generally exacerbated by grazing disturbance.) For instance, the Forest Service usually will provide the fencing materials, and the permittee the labor. But permittees can often then go to the Utah Department of Agriculture’s Grazing Improvement Program (funded by Utah taxpayers) for help with labor costs. In fact, the public pays 85 cents of every dollar the BLM or Forest Service spends maintaining livestock operations on the West’s public lands, while the rancher pays approximately 15 cents of that dollar. And then you pay Wildlife Services to kill coyotes and wolves for the ranchers, and you pay the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to restore species that have become endangered and threatened, with the endangerment to various degrees often due to livestock grazing.
Rieber also states that permittees help as first responders on some fires when they have a Rangeland Fire Protection Association. Though I am not aware of such associations in southern Utah, grazed-lands fires are often fueled by cheatgrass, which is increased by livestock grazing, and it’s all hands on deck for volunteer rural fire departments and state and federal agencies when it comes to fighting the bulk of those fires.
Rieber then reprises the “cows vs. condos” refrain that if ranchers can’t graze federal lands, they will have to sell their open-space ranches. But open space is disappearing for many reasons, including oil and gas development, sheer population growth that fuels urban and suburban expansion, and second home and ranchette purchases. Given that 100 percent of Manti-La Sal National Forest is mapped out as active grazing allotments, any conversion of ranch lands around this area isn’t due to ranchers not being able to graze the La Sal or Abajo Mountains. In fact, some ranchers graze 100 percent of the year on Forest Service and BLM lands because they do not own much ranch land (“base property”) at all.
And what does Ms. Rieber get right? She notes, “Teamwork and collaboration have come to define 21st century conservation on Western rangelands.” For instance, the La Sal Sustainability Collaboration has been working for two years now on how seven allotments on the south side of the La Sal Mountains can best be managed for livestock, as well as wildlife, fish, pollinators and native plants. In consensus-based collaborations with diverse stakeholders, misleading claims and half-truths die, and a greater balance between cows and other values emerges.