Wild West Welfare


Privately owned welfare cattle being herded onto public land and wild horse habitat  ~  photo by Terry Fitch of Wild Horse Freedom Federation
Privately owned welfare cattle being herded onto public land and wild horse habitat ~ photo by Terry Fitch of Wild Horse Freedom Federation
SOURCE:  Counterpunch
Buying Out A Swindle

Wild West Welfare


“The western cattle industry has been riding the backs of taxpayers for nearly seventy years”

–T.H. Watkins, 2002

Few have profited more or longer off of American taxpayers than livestock operators who graze the public lands of the American West.  Tens of thousands of square miles there have, for more than three quarters of a century, been managed essentially as grazing estates for a small minority of “permittees” – individuals or corporations holding federal grazing permits.

The scheme dates back to the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 when the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM, known at the time as the Grazing Service) placed millions of acres into “grazing allotments”.  Over ensuing generations politics influenced regulations, so that permittees pay a trivial fraction of market demand.  Laws typically mandate that allotments be grazed, so that if someone were to acquire a permit with the idea of protecting the land by removing domestic livestock, the permit would have to be transferred to an interest that would continue grazing.

The standard unit of measure is an “animal unit per month (AUM) – a cow plus calf or 5 sheep.  To graze livestock on private land today in Montana costs $21 per AUM, but permittees pay $1.35, an imbalance typical for the public lands throughout the West.  The difference, money due taxpayers, marks a unique welfare system carefully kept away from public awareness.  This is not a petty issue. The BLM alone has 155 million acres in grazing allotments, and the U.S. Forest Service grazes another 95 million acres of national forest land.  Together, it amounts to 8% of the contiguous United States, an area that, if seen as a square, would be 625 miles on a side – equal in extent to Montana, Wyoming and both Dakotas combined.

It is a bitter irony that the corporate world and its congressional agents, intent on killing governmental regulations so that their imaginary “free market” can go forth unhindered, protect public land welfare ranchers at taxpayer expense.  If a free market is truly central to conservative philosophy, should not conservative legislators be working to guarantee that We The People get paid what the free market demands for use of our public lands, instead of a pittance?

Permits are simply 10-year leases subject to termination, and permittees lease nothing but grazing rights.  Permits do not convey any property rights, and permittees are not due any compensation should permits be terminated or reduced.  But for generations permits have been renewed automatically without question so that permittees, such as Cliven Bundy of recent fame, have come to think of public land they graze as a kind of personal property.  So ingrained is the assumption that the welfare will be permanent that ranches have been sold as if public lands under permit were a fixed part of the ranch itself, and it is not uncommon for US citizens to be run off of their own public land by permittees, sometimes at gunpoint.

The situation has become even more senseless in the last 25 years or so, in that permittees are being paid lavish sums to “sell” their grazing permits (which, understand, they never owned in the first place) where grazing is especially damaging, where there are efforts to protect wilderness values, or, amazingly, if a permittee simply wants to retire. Permits funded by taxpayers and meant only as a privilege subject to termination, can now be “bought out”, which amounts to a double jackpot for permittees.

A startling example of the practice was an 850,000-acre buyout in 2004, in Utah-Arizona, with grazing allotments in both BLM and national forest lands, for which the seller received a whopping $4.5 million.  The buyers, the Grand Canyon Trust and the Conservation Fund, are major promoters of the buyout philosophy that, ironically, is being called “free-market environmentalism”, a startling misnomer in that it rewards a blatant welfare system.

An email earlier this year to one of the trusts involved in that exchange was answered with “Permits were assumed as part of the acquisition of the ranch – meaning, the Trust did not buy-out the permits, but continues to operate under those permits.”  Whoa!  “The Ranch” the seller actually owned was only 1000 acres, and one is supposed to believe that 1000 acres of desert is what $4.5 million was paid for … and, oh, by the way, permits for 850,000 acres (1300 square miles) were incidental, so, technically, it was not a buyout?  Please!  The purchase was obviously for access to the permits.  But even though the allotments are now under the control of those conservation organizations, the land must nevertheless be managed for grazing, as the law demands.  The only difference, presumably, is that the new permittees will treat the land differently.

If the goal of this “technically not a buyout” buyout was to manage grazing on public land allotments in a more environmentally appropriate way … which naturally suggests it was not being managed well by the original permittee (who is now $4.5 million richer) …  why, logical citizen-owners of public land might ask, were the BLM and Forest Service not enforcing a gentler treatment of the public’s land with the previous permittee?

More recently, an April 22, 2014 Wall Street Journal article described an Arizona rancher who had been “having difficulties with hikers and other land users on the allotment” [i.e., citizen owners of the land], receiving several hundred thousand dollars in 2003 from the Conservation Fund in exchange for his permit to graze 44,000 acres of public land.  This the Journal reported as a positive outcome: “No violence, no protesters, no armed federal agents – just a check and a contract.” In other words, if U.S. citizens don’t want trouble from permittees they have been supporting financially for generations, they need to understand that these welfare ranchers, many extremely wealthy, expect to be paid yet more.  To add to the insanity of it all, many permittees who have benefited for so long from governmental/taxpayer largesse, nevertheless despise “Big Government.”

The BLM, and the U.S. Forest Service are under no legal obligation to renew permits and could simply terminate them, but, as explained to me in less than great depth, “They just don’t.”



William Willers is emeritus professor of biology, University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh now living in Middleton, WI. He is founder of Superior Wilderness Action Network (SWAN) and editor of Learning to Listen to the Land and Unmanaged Landscapes, both from Island Press.



  1. It is my understanding that these grazing permits “rights” are used to make loans from banks and that the banking industry is deeply entrenched in this scam.

    I still believe that this is a basis for a class action on behalf of all Americans who are being screwed by the BLM, the FS, and the ranchers.


    • Yes, Elaine you are correct.
      Example: What do you think a bank would say if I asked for a loan using the house I RENT as collateral? Not only would they laugh me out of the bank but they would probably also have me arrested for intent to defraud the bank – and yet that is exactly what the permit holders are doing and (surprise, surprise) the bank is just fine with what I consider to be fraudulent. Who “got to” who when that scam was approved?


  2. The FARM BILL PROTECTS these people w insurance and subsudies and loss claims in naturall disaster as well as nursemates them. Dont forget many are already wealthy. Some are spending every dime to lavish themselves on their imaginary ranches. It goes along with public funded ripoff ponzi schemes like horse slaughter and reducing food benefits for the poor to increase farm deductions and other assistance. Sorry. Im AG but I see the truth as the truth. Illinois farm and cattlemen dont have this and they do better financially and have no attitude. They are responsible and keep balance where many welfare ranchers like Bundy grandstand like spoiled children against The Man that gives them free food…land…and subsidizes their lunatic rants about being poor cattlemen. They dont even pay Real Estate Taxes on this land and they dont pay to clean up or reseed the soil. The fact is their cattle consume tax monies and we have a damaged Federal budget in need of every damn dollar. They say city folks are idiots in every article and no one knows what they know. Thats not true city folk are learning daily everyone is being fleeced or ripped off by welfare ranchers and bullied when we disagree and that welfare ranching is the link card of cattlemen. Come on. Everyone knows what a bully is and that they bully whenvthey are themselves doing something wrong. Maybe city folks tried to.complain and the welfare ranchers won for decades but time for change is on its way. The internet has exposed the atrocities of this welfare ranching scheme. Exposed…educating…and proposing to make change.


  3. Usually the law does protect, and is fair, if correctly administered and abided by, as that is the assumed intent and reason for the law. So without knowing the laws, I bet there are laws that are protecting and fair in this situation and also regarding the wild horses and burros. They are not known, not understood, being ignored, or disobeyed. If that doesn’t help, then new laws are possible, given if intent of law is true. Although someone once told me that fighting something just makes it stronger. My animal communicator said dogs told her we need to see the positive in order for it to increase. I also like this a bit.https://www.facebook.com/JamesVanPraaghOfficial/photos/a.368810564124.156427.95674184124/10152166446034125/?type=1&theater although, I’m not saying I know how to apply this here.


    • We have a lot in common, Martha, as I love James Van Praagh and had a wonderful communication at an event through him with my deceased parents as well as a solo reading. I also learned animal communication years ago with Carol Guerney who spoke to my deceased dog, Tuxsie, both before and after she died. Tuxsie told me things through Carol that only she knew.

      Breathing White Light in through the top of the head and sending Pink LIght and Love out with the breath through the chest or heart area works to heal those who are good, protects, and makes negative ideas and people disappear.

      And, yes, there are laws, but without effort to make the corrupt follow them, they amount to nothing. I believe in Pink Love and LIght, but I also believe that unless one percent of a specified population organizes and meditates together, it is difficult to make change. The ™-ists believe that works and so do I. The problem is organizing enough people to reach one percent of a population to meditate together is difficult. Most people think that such an idea is the work of Pollyanna, but who cares if we could get it going. Got any ideas?


  4. HERE HERE! That was a well thought out pronouncement against our ‘cattle barons’ who have consistently voted against our beautiful Wild Horses. Most of America is blind to this!


  5. Many Public Lands “ranchers” are actually large corporations.
    As always…Follow the Money.

    The Tale of the Rolex Ranchers and the Living Legends

    Paul Rogers of the ‘San Jose Mercury News (“Cash Cows” page 2S, column 2 Nov. 7, 1999)’ (Original source: Forest Guardians) performed nine months of research that included studying 26,000 leases. Mr. Rogers’ research revealed that 10% of the total grazing leases are held by lessees that control 65% of the total public land. Furthermore, these lessees include billionaire ranchers and corporations such as Ted Turner, Baron Hilton, Mary Hewlett-Jaffey, JR Simplot, Annheiser-Busch, and the Hunt Oil Company of Dallas. The Public Lands Ranching Organization reports that the federal grazing program operates at a loss, costing taxpayers at least $500,000,000 annually. This figure includes direct program costs and millions of dollars spent on emergency feed, drought and flood relief, and predator control to support or mitigate damage from public lands grazing.


  6. Excerpts below from
    Welfare Ranching: The Subsidized Destruction of the American West

    Unfortunately, resource exploitation of various kinds has driven public lands management for many decades. Mining, logging, oil and gas drilling, and even farming have occurred and continue to occur on public lands. But the most widespread commercial use of western public lands is livestock production. Nearly all public lands that have any forage potential for livestock are leased for grazing. This includes 90 percent of BLM lands, 69 percent of USFS lands, and a surprising number of wildlife refuges and national parks. This land-your public land-is frequently managed as if it were a private feedlot rather than the common heritage of all Americans.

    The western rancher is dependent on what is, in essence, a welfare program. The much-publicized low fees paid by ranchers to graze federal lands are only the beginning. Other subsidies include taxpayer-supported research at western land grant universities and agricultural exemptions that lower property taxes paid by ranchers. There are handouts to help with nearly every problem: drought relief, low-interest agricultural loans, emergency livestock feed programs, emergency grazing on Conservation Reserve Program lands, to name a few. And this is not all.

    Ranchers are literally mortgaging the public’s resources for their private benefit. As Mark Salvo explains in his essay on the connection between the banking industry and public lands ranching, ranchers are able to take out loans based on the “value” of their grazing permits. This questionable arrangement forces government officials to consider the status of a rancher’s debt when making range management decisions, rather than focusing on what is best for the land.

    What can be done to address the problems associated with public lands livestock grazing? There is a simple answer: end it. Get the cows and sheep off, let the wild creatures reclaim their native habitat, and send the ranchers a bill for the cost of restoration.


  7. Excerpts from the article, “A Bit of History: BLM and Land Management” (published by the International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros):


    “In a classic example of western control of federal land, the TGA (Taylor Grazing Act) retained elite stock raisers’ dominance using a permit system, a small fee, and a weak agency to manage the program.”

    “For years, the BLM was staffed with ranchers and ranching advocates and administered to primarily stockmen-dominated rangeland, had little inclination to curtail ranching abuses.”

    “1960 through the 1970’s several important environmental laws (ecological movement) were passed but they are poorly enforced with regard to ranching.”

    “If the intent of the various environmental an public land laws was rigorously enforced, 75% of public lands ranching would be shut down” Rose Strickland, Sierra Club.”

    “With 17 western states holding 34 seats in the Senate, there will always be enough votes to guarantee that the livestock industry’s interests are not overlooked.”

    “Federal grazing permittees represent about 0.037% (1 out of every 2,727 people) of the population in the West and 0.0088% (1 our of every 11,363 people) of all Americans.” (Chew on that for a minute…)

    “The basis for the entire struggles on public lands is based on ranchers eliminating competition whether it is horses, ORVs, hunting, etc. The philosophy hasn’t changed… since the 1800’s.”

    And perhaps, this most chilling Statement:

    “Remember that this is the largest agency but receives the least amount of funding to manage public lands – this is purposeful so there is less control on monitoring rangelands.”


    • And I have personally reported about a dozen cases of DOCUMENTED livestock trespass to the BLM and they fluff it off as no big deal. I ask … when are hundreds of sheep or cattle trespassing on posted “no grazing” area not important?

      Answer: When the BLM are “buddies” with those ranchers and the wild horses and burros will eventually get any/all the blame for any over-use that BLM can find and then the wild horses and burros will be removed.

      This is not unusual – it is a pattern – and it is a pattern that works just fine for the BLM and their buddy ranchers.


      • And how ’bout that ‘sheep outfit’, with allotment leases in Northern California AND Northern Nevada, that owns 10’s of thousands of acres – in both states – yet continues to dine their stock on OUR lands and our dime???

        If that isn’t welfare fraud, I don’t know what is.


  8. I love horses, burros, mules, anything horse, and I have since before I was born.

    I agree that our climate is changing, but the global warming community is pushing the narrative that cows are the most harmful species on the planet and are responsible for global warming even though the most recent paper published on the subject stated that the global mean temperature has not risen in 19 years. Only 11 countries of the original 180 some that first signed up to agree to some of these climate carbon restrictions have resigned.

    Sure, some ranchers have made a far better living from ranching than they should have, but here is the oner side of this. In states where a large proportion of the state’s area is private land, the taxes produced from the land fund school systems and other public uses in lieu of the property taxes private citizens and business owners pay in states where the land is not publicly owned. The land is local, funds from the profits of whatever is produced on the land is local, so if the land is not used but remains public, who will fund the schools or fund public works—or is that why the environmental groups created the Wild Lands maps which ties up 50% of the land? I don’t have that answer either.

    However, I did notice that for the Appalachian region the areas with large natural gas. coal, and polymbendum are considered wild lands . . .mmm I know that there are also places on the wild lands map in the West where the “wild lands” sure look mighty close to the places oil, gas, and coal extraction industries want to control.

    So I guess my question is whether or not this has occurred to the people that drew these maps up for the people who intend to keep right on profiting from public lands after the horses, the livestock, and the humans are gone from there know that or not.


  9. Here is the problem for states with a large of their land mass owned by the government compared to states where land is owned privately is that private property taxes go to support schools and other country services. Taxes support state roads and building infrastructure. How do states with a relatively small population and a large land mass support their basic need to pay expenses for country and state services without private property taxes?

    Maybe horse advocacy groups should get together and buy up grazing permits–or perhaps we could get a play on our income tax form to pay fees that are equal to or greater than the grazing fees charged for cattle to compensate states for the income they feel they are losing through not using the land for cattle grazing.


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