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The Ranching Economy

The rural economy of the West is based on sustainable resource-based activities including ranching and, increasingly, wildlife-derived dollars. In 1995, cash receipts from the marketing of cattle in 11 of the western states totaled $7.3 billion (U.S. Department of Agriculture 1995). Ranching supports rural economies in numerous ways, such as creating jobs and providing a tax base for local infrastructure. Many family ranchers purchase most of their supplies in local markets (CAST 1996).

Public lands: dominate the landscape of the rural West. In some states, federal land exceeds 80 percent of the total land in the state. So, by geographic circumstance, making a living through ranching frequently requires leasing public land. Key facts and figures include:

  • Of the approximately 20 percent of U.S. beef cattle (6 million animals) that are raised in 11 of the western states, more than half of these animals graze on the 270 million acres of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands or the 190 million acres of U.S. Forest Service (Forest Service) lands (CAST 1996). Domestic livestock grazing is the most widespread and extensive use of the federal rangelands (CAST 1996).
  • Approximately 85 percent of the West's federal lands are grazed by domestic livestock all or part of the year (CAST 1996).
  • The Forest Service issued approximately 9,000 grazing permits in 1995 (U.S. Department of Agriculture 1996) and the BLM issued a total of 18,769 grazing permits and leases in 1997 (U.S. Department of the Interior 1997).

On private lands: fee hunting has become a significant part of the economic picture for family ranchers as they work to keep their ranches economically viable. Healthy and abundant wildlife populations on ranch lands are critical to the livelihoods of many ranchers. In some states, only private land offers hunting opportunities. In 1996, 51 percent of hunters hunted on private lands exclusively (U.S. Department of the Interior 1997).

Hunters are accustomed to paying for the privilege of hunting on private lands. In 1991, Americans 16 years of age or older spent a total of $121,771,000 for the privilege to hunt on private lands and a total of $31,100,000 to take part in non-consumptive wildlife-related recreation such as bird-watching (U.S. Department of the Interior 1993). Just five years later, in 1996, Americans spent $323,960,000 for the privilege to hunt on private lands and $106,599,000 to participate in watchable wildlife activities (U.S. Department of the Interior 1997). Private landowners have found that hunters are willing to pay more for the opportunity to hunt trophy animals and/or to have a guide accompany them. For example, it is not unusual for landowners to receive up to $8,000 for a permit to hunt a trophy elk.

Ranchers pay equitable fees: for their use of public lands, when taken into account with their contributions to public lands, including rangeland improvements. The public-land permittee is responsible for fence construction and maintenance, water source development, and must work with state and federal range managers to make sure the land can adequately support a productive balance between wildlife and livestock use. By comparison, private land lessees do not carry the burden of supporting productive multiple uses of the land. The private landowner who leases land for grazing most often provides for the upkeep, such as water supplies and fencing, and he charges the lessee more for his service.

Grazing fees not only make a substantial contribution to the Forest Service and BLM budgets, but also allow them to carry out their multiple-use mandates. For example, in 1989, out of the $19 million it spent on managing its range program including administration of wildlife habitat, archeological site preservation, watershed enhancement, etc., the Forest Service recouped $8.7 million from grazing fees -- nearly 46 percent (USDA-Forest Service 1989). The BLM, meanwhile, generally recovers 50 percent of its range program expenditures from grazing fees in a typical year (Personal communication, Bureau of Land Management 1998).

Caretaker: In some respects, the public-lands rancher is the caretaker of those lands for the average American. Since the federal government cannot afford to employ enough people to manage the almost half-billion acres of public land in the West, it partners with ranchers, using their expertise to manage those lands. Thus, without the public-lands rancher, the natural resource values of the lands would likely deteriorate.