Categorized | Federal Policy, Public Lands

Federal Grazing Permits and Leases Do Not Convey “Grazing Rights” on Public Lands

Nevada public lands rancher Cliven Bundy’s refusal to pay grazing fees—and his resultant multi-decadal dispute with the Bureau of Land Management—became front page news this week when the agency finally acted on court orders to remove Bundy’s trespass cattle from the public domain. It’s a fascinating, exasperating story that has yet to reach a conclusion.

News media and commentators of every stripe documented the heightened tensions this week as armed protesters confronted federal agents attempting to round-up Bundy’s livestock. Reporting has ranged from the meticulous to the uninformed to the inane (one critic stridently—and erroneously—claims the BLM was established in 1976 and is authorized to control land uses on all federal, state and private lands nationwide, among other outlandish contentions).

Notably, many reports have mistakenly referred to Bundy’s grazing use as “grazing rights,” which suggests that public lands ranchers have a right to graze livestock on public lands. They don’t. Grazing permits and leases issued by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service allow the permit or lease holder the privilege, not a right to use publicly owned forage on federal public lands. This distinction was intended by Congress in the Taylor Grazing Act of 19341 (BLM) and the Granger-Thye Act of 1950 (Forest Service),2 articulated in agency regulations,3 restated in federal records,4 affirmed by scholars,5 and upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court as recently as 2000.6 Federal grazing permits and leases are revocable, amendable, non-assignable ten-year licenses to graze federal public lands that do not convey property rights to grazing permittees/lessees.

The misnomer of “grazing rights” could give the impression that livestock grazing on federal public lands has a superior position over other uses of those lands, which is untrue. Our public lands are managed for multiple uses and public values, including habitat for wildlife, sources of drinking water, and myriad recreational and sustainable economic activities. Federal law requires that grazing, like other profitable enterprise on the public domain, be conducted in a manner that accommodates other legitimate uses of public lands, waters and resources.

The news media should use more accurate terms when referring to public lands grazing, such as “grazing privileges,” “grazing permit” and “grazing lease.”

1 43 U.S.C. sec. 315b.
2 16 U.S.C. sec. 580(l).
3 43 C.F.R. sec. 4130.2(c) (BLM regulation); 36 C.F.R. sec. 222.3(b) (Forest Service regulation).
4 E.g., USDI-BLM, USDA-Forest Service. 1995. Rangeland Reform ’94 Final Environmental Impact Statement. USDI-BLM. Washington, D.C.: 125.
5 E.g., D. Donahue. 1999. THE WESTERN RANGE REVISITED: REMOVING LIVESTOCK FROM PUBLIC LANDS TO CONSERVE NATIVE BIODIVERSITY. Univ. Oklahoma Press. Norman, OK: 38.
6 Public Lands Council v. Babbitt, 529 U.S. 728, 741 (2000). See also U.S. v. Fuller, 409 U.S. 488 (1973) (holding that the federal government is not required by the Fifth Amendment to compensate a property owner in a condemnation action for the extra value of his private property attributed to his federal grazing permit).

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- who has written 16 posts on dotWild.

Mark Salvo is Senior Director for Landscape Conservation for Defenders of Wildlife.

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