A Bioinspired Alternative To Welfare Ranching

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The numbers speak for themselves. The two most popular recent subjects that I’ve written about in my blog have been the ecological issues associated with cattle and sheep grazing and the negative impact of lethal predator eradication.  I’ve now decided to explore sound ecological answers to these two issues that might make sense to everyone. Certainly a tall order. I’ve been looking for examples of people who have been able to resolve these issues successfully and holistically. There are some wonderful stories out there and I’d like to share some of these stories with you. In this blog post, I’ll write about success with the holistic management of cattle and sheep grazing. Later, I’ll write about successes with non-lethal predator control. And, in the course of doing my research, I discovered some success stories in other ecosystems which I want to share with you.

Recently, I wrote about the negative ecological impact of grazing . It is a very controversial issue because the ecological impact of grazing is severe and some grazing is on public lands where the US taxpayer is subsidizing the rancher. Thus the term “welfare ranching”.

The ecological impact of grazing that I reviewed in my recent blog is summarized as:

  • To control cows and sheep, fences are used. Fences prohibit or inhibit the free passage of wild animals, reducing their access to food and water as well as isolating subpopulations.
  • Cattle grazing has completely changed the soil structure and primary plant species in most Southwest riparian zones. In turn, this has adversely affected populations of local and migrating birds, animals that live near a river, and fish who live in the rivers.
  • Cattle grazing has resulted in some 464 million acres of land becoming arid desert.
  • Cattle grazing has reduced the density and biomass of many plant and animal species.
  • Cattle grazing has reduced biodiversity.
  • Cattle grazing has aided in the spread of exotic invasive species.
  • Cattle grazing impedes the cycling of soil nitrogen.
  • Cattle grazing changes habitat structure and disturbs community organization.
  • Cattle and sheep ranching has resulted in a huge draw on water reserves.

The financial impact to the taxpayer, who subsidizes welfare ranching, is heavy. Federal permittees pay only $1.35 Cowsper month to graze a single cow-calf pair on public lands while the average monthly cost of grazing per cow-calf pair on private lands is $11.10. In addition, subsidies to the rancher for predator and pest control, drought and fire damage, further make the endeavor even more profitable to the rancher. For the year 2001, beyond any income derived from welfare ranching, it cost the taxpayer an estimated $72 million for Bureau of Land Management’s Range Management Program. For the year 2000, the US Forest Service Program paid out over $52 million. According to a Government Accountability Office report in 2005, grazing fees generated less than one-sixth of the expenditures needed by the government to manage grazing on public lands in 2004.

Most ranching on public lands is with larger, corporate operations. Because federal grazing permits are not retired, those permits that are no longer used by smaller operations are simply bought up by the larger operations. It is simple economics why corporations use public lands.

Hopefully, this corporate abuse of a precious ecosystem and taxpayer dollars will end while the land and wildlife can still recover. There is a glimmer of hope as I did further research. The two major issues are environmental and economic.

Grazing-5749Let’s talk about the environmental issues first. I recently became acquainted with an organization named Holistic Management International (HMI). According to their web site, HMI is

..an international environmental education non-governmental organization headquartered in Albuquerque, New Mexico, who works with stewards of large landscapes (agricultural producers, pastoralists and government agencies) to help them partner with Nature to create a positive ecological footprint.  Through improved natural resource management practices, these managers improve soil health, which results in a host of benefits including improved water quality, carbon sequestration, drought mitigation, flood resilience, and food security.

One of the key insights of Holistic Management is Nature functions in wholes, therefore we must manage the relationships within that whole for the benefit of all. With Holistic Management we accomplish this by determining the whole we are managing and working with all the resources in it through a decision-making framework that encourages that whole to act as a self-organizing system – humans adapting their management in response to the changes happening in their resource base.

You can read more detail about the efforts at HMI at:

The results of Holistic Management efforts have been documented in research performed by scientists from Montana State University, Ohio State University, and North Dakota State University. They have verified some of the changes on grazing land where Holistic Management is practiced such as:

  • 300% increase in plant species
  • 400% increase in stocking rate
  • 50% decrease in bare ground
  • 800% increase in soil permeability
  • 300% increase in profitability
  • 500% increase in riparian bird population
  • 900% increase in rooting depth of plants

I am sure there are other organizations that are available to oversee the holistic management of lands used for Cows_1grazing. The technology seems to be in place. It seems to me that the problem may be in the implementation. This requires cooperative ranchers. I don’t get the feeling, however, that holistic ranching is widespread.

In my view, the solution to the ecological and economic issues surrounding grazing, at least on public lands, is with how our government deals with ranchers. As a condition for using public lands for grazing, Government agencies must require that the ranchers  keep the land whole, both ecologically and economically. The rancher must become financially responsible for meeting the environmental goals established by groups such as HMI. Furthermore, the rancher must start paying fees to the government that are consistent with the costs incurred by the government organizations who are responsible to we taxpayers for preserving the health of the land and for maintaining a positive flow of funds into our government’s coffers.

It is time to end welfare ranching !!!!  These people are breaking important connections in Nature and asking the government to foot the bill.

What do you think ??


Worth Your Extra Attention :


Thanks for reading this blog post. 

Here are some useful references about grazing and welfare ranching.

Welfare Ranching: The Subsidized Destruction of the American West

A Modest Proposal – Expanding Our Ecological Footprint

Public Lands Ranching: Taxpayer Subsidized Habitat Destruction

On Wyoming’s Range, Water Is Scarce but Welfare Is Plenty

Taxpayers for Common Sense

Center For Biological Diversity – The Ecological Costs of Livestock Grazing

Denver Post newspaper article on grazing fees


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The purpose for these blogs is to develop a dialog between myself and my readers.

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My name is Bill Graham. As a Marine Biologist who has worked in the US and Mexico for 30 years, I am a student of Nature, a teacher, a researcher, and a nature photographer. Through my work, I have acquired an ever growing passion for how everything in Nature is connected. Today, I travel extensively contemplating about, writing about, and photographing Nature’s connections. I also work with conservation projects in the USA and Mexico and mentor talented youth.

14 thoughts on “A Bioinspired Alternative To Welfare Ranching”

  1. Bill, A few blogs back you talked about Passive Restoration. In this current blog you talked about the cost of grazing and the benefit of holistic grazing. But you didn’t mention the economic, food and fiber cost of not grazing cattle and sheep on federally administered lands. Aside from the reduction in costs associated with grazing administration, is there any significance to not grazing federal lands?

    1. Hi George:

      Thanks for responding to the blog. You very astutely expose the key issue, in my opinion. The truth is that I am against any kind of grazing on public lands because of the ecological issues. Our stewards of Nature are charged with preserving public lands for us. But, in fact they are openly permitting destructive practices to take place. To make matters worse, what I’ve observed is that enforcement of current grazing practices doesn’t exist.

      But, with this blog, I’m being practical. The influential corporate interests would fight very hard opposing any ban on cheap grazing. In lieu of nothing, I’d rather see some sort of enforceable holistic ecological plan.

      The HMI plan, while admirable in many ways, seems to be a very intense hands-on program. From the studies, it seems to be working. And, it is built-in enforcement which is now absent. But, I’m also uncomfortable with trying to “manage” Nature because complex systems are not predictable except in the short term. It sounds to me like HMI is working in the short term and remaining very flexible. But, I still embrace Passive Restoration because Nature’s self-organizing complex systems seem to be perfectly capable of managing themselves without mankind.

      In the end, I’d rather have something rather than nothing. Groups like HMI are a good first step.

  2. Hi Bill,

    I like the “Welfare Ranching” concept. Holistic management is not the answer. Oh, the idea is, but the practices we have are not well developed. Management to return the land to healthier condition is a great goal. It seems that should be a human responsibility.

    The holistic management system is only effective in a few limited situations. It is identical to the old system of rotational grazing. Allan Savory rediscovered it in Africa after personally directing the eradication of more than 30,000 elephants. The system is not effective in North America where ranchers replace wild buffalo and pronghorn with cattle and sheep and try to control predator and competitor populations. They have no methods for eradicating Old World invasive plants or reducing weed-shortened fire recurrence intervals.

    Here, invasive plants continue to spread, native plants are lost to competition and increased fire frequency, and associated wildlife fades.

    If you look closely at Holistic Management (http://www.savoryinstitute.com), you will find the methods are vague and support from experimental evidence almost completely lacking.

    The U. S. agencies responsible for grazing have management policies designed to preserve the land. What they need before they can implement their policies is either protection from special interest political influence, or massive public support.

    Thank you for taking up this critical subject. I’m expressing opinions here, and will be happy to be corrected or ignored. I am very pleased to promote your work through my Internet contacts (https://facebook.com/GarryRogersPage, https://twitter.com/Garry_Rogers, http://www.scoop.it/t/ecoscifi, and others).


    1. Hi Garry:

      Thanks for taking the time to reply in such detail. I have no experience with HMI and appreciate you adding some fact. My issue is that, for whatever reason, little or nothing is being done by the government to preserve the land and at least HMI is trying to do something positive. I find that refreshing. While their methods may not be completely effective, at least they are moving in the right direction with grazing rotation methods. I’m not sure how they are getting funded and if they are working with any government agencies.

      I am concerned that the government folks, if they do have “management policies designed to preserve the land”, are not doing so. They certainly can call for public support as I’ve seen them do in other circumstances — including joining in lawsuits to support an environmental cause. I’ve also witnessed some pretty poor enforcement management of grazing lands by BLM and USFS folks — including allowing illegal grazing.

      I’m just an outsider looking in, but it seems to me that nothing is going to get going until our overseers of public lands act in a responsible way that does preserve our public lands including standing up to the ranchers both on grazing issues and on predator control. One of our readers (George), who commented earlier on this post, worked with BLM closely and I’d love to get his take on all of this. I’d love to hear what he has to say on your comments.

      If you can offer more on what environmental management policies government agencies are employing, I think it would add much to our discussion.

  3. I recently read Farley Mowat’s “High Latitudes”. An interesting factoid: the Canadian
    government brought in Sami caribou herders to teach Inuit/Eskimos to manage caribou herds as a source of food, fiber and income because their traditional life styles were being extirpated. Some caribou wandered into Alaska and the meat
    became a successful export. At the turn of the 20th century it was a blooming commercial venture selling the meat to San Francisco restaurants.

    It seems that cattlemen didn’t like the competition and were able to lobby congress to stop commercial access to caribou meat.

    Would caribou have a lower methane profile than beef cattle? Are they less destructive to their northern habitat? Is caribou meat a better dietary choice than corporate beef or pork?
    Do legal restrictions on commercial /domestic caribou need to be lifted?

    Thanks for sharing your passions and intelligence.

    1. Thanks for your comments Julie. You raise some very interesting and fun questions. I confess ignorance on the subject and would LOVE to know more. Perhaps someone else in this forum can enlighten us. I am also going to make a note to do some research. You have given me the fodder for another blog post.

  4. Nice website Gary; think I will add it to my morning wall crawl. I absolutely agree with you regarding the practicality of applying HMI on federal grazing lands. I also agree with you Bill, that a grazing system based on more holistic considerations would be much better than the dominant systems currently being used. Let me clarify. I think I can state factually that there are three grazing systems that are in use with very few exceptions. They are evolutionary steps from no management of livestock use on Public Lands prior to 1935 and the Taylor Grazing Act that “allotted use” and administered the grazing fee and managed for the resources “in the interim” (with the idea that the land would be disposed of eventually, ie sold or given away). In 1976 the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (aka Organic Act ) was passed which changed BLM’s management goals to long term “multiple use” management ( “management of the public lands and their various resource values so that they are utilized in the combination that will best meet the present and future needs of the American people.”) ( http://www.blm.gov/flpma/FLPMA.pdf )

    So over time more intensive livestock management was being required. Originally, Season Long (year long) single pasture grazing was the norm. Later it was determined that the range (grass) needed some “rest”, so a two pasture Deferred Grazing system was implemented in many areas. This required dividing the allotment into two pastures with fencing. Each being grazed season long in consecutive years; which I call “flip-flop” to distinguish it from grazing one pasture until seed ripe and the other after seed ripe. And finally, the Rest Rotation System (developed by Hormay in 1960) where three or more pastures are fenced and grazed systematically. By far the most used version in BLM is the three pasture system (in fact I do not know of more pastures being used but maybe…). The three pasture rest rotation involves the following three year grazing periods rotated annually: Spring grazing up until seed ripe, post seed ripe grazing, and a year of no grazing. Winter grazing may or may not be allowed. There are many advantages of the Rest Rotation system but it can be improved on and requires more fencing.

    The Holistic management system, in concept, is a short duration – high intensity system. It would require even much, much more fencing (which isn’t going to happen), or mixing a lot of permittees’ (ranchers’) livestock in one pasture and rotating them through all the pastures in a resource area. I don’t see this ever happening for several reasons. But it would be better on the range ecosystem than current management systems.

    Not the least of the problems is that every cow in a resource area (a million acres more or less) would spread every weed seed to all other pastures. Additional fencing, control of cattle diseases spread , and difficulty of sorting out the cattle at the end of or throughout the season are some of the other difficult issues that would need to be resolved.

    That said, I have seen HMI (the Savory system) implemented on a couple of private ranches with grass pastures which seemed to work well, but these were much smaller and more productive that rangeland pastures.

    Increasing the number of pastures used in a Rest Rotation would be a good compromise. In some places it could be implemented without additional fencing, especially, where big corporate cattle companies are involved.

    Like Gary said, please take what I said for what it’s worth.

    @Garry Rogers

    1. George, your ears must have been burning. I laid in bed last night pondering whether to write and ask you to comment. Thank you so much. I am thrilled that all of you are taking the time to comment and add your expertise to this dialog.

      I would love to hear your views on the “welfare ranching” end of the issue. Why is the government subsidizing all of this ?? What is the politics of all of this ?? While my experience is very limited on this subject, I’m curious if you have any experience on the enforcement end of things. In my limited contact, I’ve seen both BLM and USFS exhibit poor enforcement of grazing violations.

      1. Bill, I don’t think the question you want answered is “Why is the government subsidizing all of this ??” That’s easy: It is the law. Specifically, the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLIPMA) for BLM and partially for other agencies. The real question, I believe, is, “Why do the taxpayers not care, or at least not act to change it?” I believe there are a couple reasons (at least). First, FLIPMA was a landmark legislation that resulted in dramatic changes in the management of (activities on) Public Lands. If you think it is bad now, you should have seen it in the ’60s. At that time, typically a Resource Area administered about a million acres (it varied greatly but in the millions) with one Range Conservationist (who mostly did paperwork issuing permits) and a Biologist (because the Taylor Grazing Act” mentioned wildlife. The RA office also was staffed with Operations personal to build roads, stock ponds, campgrounds, etc. and office staff. FLIPMA and the NEPA required a much broader and number of resource staff and regulations for environmental protection. But, and this is a big “but”, the stakeholders, the one’s footing the bill don’t even know there is a problem, and for those who do, they don’t know how to utilize the “system” to affect change. And so they don’t participate.

        So the answer to your question is hidden under the cloak of the Ghost of Christmas Present: Ignorance and Want.
        But you already knew that; hence your blog and educational efforts.


        The politics? I’m no PolySci major but it seems pretty much “politics as usual”; nothing terribly unique. But not straight forward either. As far as subsidies go, to understand it you have to understand the national situation back when the homesteading, grazing and mining subsidies went into effect in the late 1800s. I am not going to go into detail but suffice with saying that it was considered in the countries best interest to get people “out west”, to get the western territories occupied and settled. And to get precious metals (primarily gold) into the treasury. At the time, $1.25 an acre for homesteading was a fair value for land, as it was for mining land, and as a grazing fee. Those fees were a real benefit to the U.S. citizens (they weren’t tax payers back then). But Congress made a big mistake by not including an inflationary calculation so today those fees are de facto subsidies. It is the Law!! It literally takes an act of congress to amend it. Aside from the ranching/farming lobbies, every small town in the eleven western states feel a substantial amount of their economy comes from the ranching community and schools receive money from the grazing fees. No congressman, in my opinion, is going to touch that one!

        I have oversimplified the topic grossly but the bottom line is that even though changing the fees (and it has been proposed many times) is “right” it is not politically smart.


        Finally, you queried the way the agencies enforce grazing violations. FLIPMA addresses how grazing violations are supposed to be handled. Actual implementation is highly variable. Usually, it is reflected by the Area/District manager’s bias. Typically, conservative managers will look the other way, while more environmentally oriented managers will be stricter. Again, politics comes into play. If a State Director or regional supervisor frowns at enforcement there is not much an area/district manager can do if he or she wants to keep their job.

        BLM and Forest Service get a lot more flack from conservative and capitalist interests than they do from the environmental side; pure and simple.


        That’s my version, in a nutshell

        1. George: Your well thought out contributions to this blog site are deeply appreciated. You are giving me quite an education !!! I wish there was a way to get some of your comments retweeted. Posts like this one are exposed to some 15 to 20,000 people through retweets during the first 24 hours.

          What stands out from your comments is that the practical reality of American politics and the power of the ranching community basically stop any real conservation efforts from taking place. In its place is corporate and political greed. My BLM contacts in Tucson have basicallt said the same thing to me. “Its the law” is a comment I’ve heard more than once.

          Your comment about the local BLM and USFS folks having some discretion on ecological decisions synchs with my experience. We’ve seen many grazing violations along the San Pedro River and we’ve had to do some BLM butt kicking to get action — which comes slowly. Yet, I’ve seen some very exciting things happen at places like Great Sand Dunes National Park where NPS managers were right in the middle of stopping corporate interests from ruining the dunes by diverting the water in the aquifer. I’ll be doing a blog on this bit of environmental heroism very soon.

          Please stick close to me as I explore these subjects. Your expertise and experience is greatly valued. And, you collaring my urge to openly throttle the bureaucracy is greatly appreciated.

          1. Bill, I didn’t say that …politics and power basically stop any real conservation efforts… Quite the contrary, actually. The “political animals” (state/regional leaders). Hate, and I mean Hate, to be embarrassed. That makes the Press your best friend. Think what it would be like if every intelligent conservationist got in bed (figuratively) with an influential reporter? I say “intelligent” because they have to be able to communicate what motivates the public and embarrasses regional leadership. They come to the negotiating table very quickly. You also have to understand how the Press works: Deadlines, column space that has to be filled, sponsors to be pleased. If you write an article with facts and references and include some cited quotes, it has been my experience that newspapers will print it; even if submitted anonymously!

            The BLM decision maker has TOTAL discretion regarding environmental decisions, including the wrong ones. Here is how it works (for all agencies). The agency has “policies”; procedures they must follow to get to a decision, ie. hoops they have to jump through. As long as they jump through all the hoops their decisions cannot be appealed. This is their strength and their vulnerability. The agencies generally have contradicting policies so they all can never be met. My lawyer once told me that he loved to litigate against the government because he could always find a policy that wasn’t followed. When a policy is not followed in the process of coming to a land use decision, the decision can be appealed to the Internal Board of Land Appeals. If the appeal is upheld, the decision cannot be implemented until the proper hoops have been jumped through. The decision maker can still make a poor decision but all the hoops have to be jumped through. IBLA appeals cost the appellant nothing.

            To challenge a poor Decision, a lawsuit has to be filed. They are expensive and best left to the likes of NRDC.

            Some “outside” agencies have jurisdiction over the federal land management agencies. For example, most waters are owned by the States in public trust, as are wildlife. Water quality laws are enforced by the states. If a federal land management agency’s decisions result in violation of the Clean Water Act standards a complaint to the State WQ agency usually results in investigation at the minimum and cease and desist action when valid.

            Water Rights are mostly the State’s purview, as is the Clean Air Act, State sensitive species acts (in accordance with policy) have to be respected. Coordination with the right people in these agencies can be a great help in getting good environmental decisions made. It is universally considered very embarrassing to have State agencies at odds with the federal agencies. The whole State’s Rights issue is always lurking.

            I would think you will always have more success with single or duel focus management agencies, like the NPS (their decision are comparatively easy), than with the poor multiple use agencies. There is no way BLM and USFS can ever please all the interests. Some districts make a sincere effort at it but it just can’t be done.

            The good news, the newer, younger resources and activity management staff are better educated and more ecosystem oriented. The old school management staff are gradually being replaced, both in the agencies and in the college faculty. It might not be fast enough for you but take some time to reflect on how far we have come since the rape of the turn of the last century.

            As I mentioned to you before, there are a lot of apolitical staff that want to do what’s best for the ecosystem of which they are stewards, but are often superseded by higher political powers. Their counterparts on the outside need to help them!!! When I was in BLM I maintained a network outside the agency that I would ask to apply pressure when my recommendations to Management went unheeded. It is amazing how well it works. But I was an exception.

            Finally, and not lastly, NEPA can be a very powerful ally. It is a “hoop” that must be gone through in almost all land use decisions. Land Use Plans (in BLM. USFS has Forest Plans, I believe.) must go through the NEPA process, ie an EIS). Once a Decision is made that there will not be any significant environmental impact (including economic and social) that plan must be followed without deviation. There is very little oversight to ensure this. You, the public, has the right to provide that oversight. A violation is appealable to the IBLA. A deviation, requires an amendment to the Land Use Plan and that automatically requires a new EIS; it can be focused on the deviation. You also have the right to be involved in the decision making process. Your properly submitted comments MUST be considered and addressed in the EA/EIS process.

            Bottom line Bill, there are lots of avenues to affect good ecological stewardship decisions but people have to be willing to use them.

  5. In response to this blog post, I received an email from Norbert Hoeller of Sustainable Innovation Network. I’m taking the liberty of sharing his remarks with my readers. He does hint at a passive approach to dealing with ecological issues – a concept that I generally embrace.

    Hi William, thanks for summarizing the issue and the pointer to Ann’s article. The comments are intriguing but the underlying assumption seems to be that we can turn the clock back. I agree that the world may be a better place if we were not around. I have seen arguments that humans were in more balance prior to the Industrial Revolution but calling that period a ‘golden age’ is more a reflection of our perceptions than the realities of the time.

    The world population in 1750 is estimated at 750 million, with only 3% living in cities. Simply because of self-preservation, we are not going to willing return to a pre-Industrial Revolution way of life. The good news is that human population growth seems to be levelling off. The bad news is that we lack realistically implementable models for how we can be a positive ‘force of nature’. As you point out in one of your comments, the HMI approach requires a lot of ‘eyeballs per acre’ which may be possible in open range ranching but goes against the trend in commercial/agriculture. Government policies clearly can play a part but ultimately can only change behavior so far. Reducing subsidies over time and incorporating externalities into the cost of doing business are both essential but also need to be planned carefully to avoid unexpected consequences. Ultimately, it is necessary to engage the people who are working the land because only they have the ability to sense and respond quickly.

    Your point about the risks of “managing Nature” is valid. What are the alternatives? The National Parks system is one approach to preserving public lands but it suggests a curio cabinet approach. The reality is that few parks are large enough to support fully functional ecosystems, the porous boundaries result in spillover into surrounding areas and we are “loving our parks to death”. The irony is that natural systems seem quite capable of managing themselves without any obvious controlling intelligence while our intelligence often does more harm than good. As you point out, doing nothing isn’t an option.

    I was speaking with an ecologist yesterday about a webinar she will be hosting later in December on Bio-Inspired Innovation and Planetary Boundaries. One intriguing comment was the importance of participation in the cycles underlying planetary boundaries. At the risk of glossing over the complexities, we need to see planetary boundaries as opportunities rather than limits. The challenge is figuring out how to explore those opportunities safely. I asked her what ecological knowledge could be brought to bear – she was reluctant to engage because of her lack of knowledge in the social/cultural domain and the possibility of unintended consequences if ecological knowledge is used inappropriately.

    I was going to post this to your blog but realized it would just be another unsupported opinion from someone who dabbles in the field. What is needed is a dialogue amongst those directly affected and experts who can share their knowledge to help find viable solutions. Although you do an excellent job responding to comments and trying to keep the conversation going, we need to turn these discussions into results. Ideas are cheap, execution is the hard part.

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