Colorado ranchers like Leonard Ball and Robert Hill have had federal grazing permits in their families for 75 years or more, and while working with the agency that oversees that land isn’t easy, they say it’s a necessity when it comes to their operations.
The relationship between grazing permit holders and the federal government was thrust into the national spotlight in April when Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy — who refuses to recognize federal authority on state land, and who stopped paying grazing fees 20 years ago — stood with an armed militia to thwart a Bureau of Land Management roundup of his cattle, which were on government permit land after his permit had been revoked. The BLM says Bundy owes $1 million in grazing fees and penalties for trespassing, according to Associated Press reports.
Terry Fankhauser, executive vice president of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, called Bundy “an outlier,” saying that he’s not representative of how most ranchers feel, and he’s certainly not an example of how most ranchers would conduct themselves. Still, Fankhauser said many ranchers view their federal permits as a necessary burden: they struggle to work under tight federal restrictions, but they’d have a difficult time operating without them.
“It’s a cumbersome process,” Fankhauser said. “That being said, (federal grasslands) are integrally valuable to these ranching operations. You have to have access to those federal lands to stay in business.”
Ray Peterson’s permit to graze cattle on a portion of the Pawnee National Grasslands has been in his family since 1937. He said his permit, which is displayed in a frame on his ranch, is one of the original ones issued by the Crow Valley Livestock Cooperative.
If it weren’t for those federal lands, Peterson said he’d have to downsize considerably.
“That literally doubles our capacity for cow herd numbers,” Peterson said.
In Weld County, Colo., the U.S. Forest Service doles out permits for just more than 190,000 acres of grazing land in the Pawnee National Grasslands on which ranchers graze roughly 8,000 cattle each year. Most of the roughly 100 permit holders are members of one of two grazing associations, the Crow Valley Livestock Cooperative or the Pawnee Livestock Cooperative Association, each of which have permits for roughly half of that acreage.
Other federal agencies have little land within the county’s borders. The Bureau of Land Management, for example, manages about 78 acres.
Per federal statute, the going rate for grazing on federal lands is $1.35 per Animal Unit Month, or AUM. The permit holder pays the fee for the amount of forage each cow or each cow-calf pair would consume each month. On federal land, the permit holder is also responsible for any improvements on the land, including fences, windmills and water systems. The permit holder foots the bill for those improvements, but does not technically own them.
Hill, one of five board directors for the Pawnee cooperative, said his association pays the $1.35 per AUM and pays for all improvements. The organization disseminates the permits to its 43 members, who each pay $7 per AUM.
Members are required to help with some maintenance, like mending fences or repairing shallow pipelines, but the organization still pays for materials and bigger repairs.
“A private individual wouldn’t be able to do that all on his own, much of the time,” Hill said.
Ball, president of the Crow Valley association, said his organization is similar, but member dues include fees for hired help to repair any damage, so members aren’t responsible for fixing improvements.
Both said the biggest issues their organizations faces on the grassland come from sharing it with members of the public.
So far this year, Hill said shooters have destroyed a windmill and a water tank.
Overall maintenance and repairs cost the association about $100,000 per year, Hill said.
Ball said members have lost cattle to shooters, some by accident and some purposefully shot. He said his organization has asked the Forest Service to shut down access road in hopes of preventing some of the damage and cattle loss, but the agency hasn’t yet allowed that.
Another issue ranchers face on federal lands is the agency’s ability to dictate how many head of cattle are allowed each year and how long they can stay out. Hill said ranchers would like to keep their cattle out to pasture for as many as five months, beginning in May, but in recent drought years, they’ve been allowed on grasslands for only 2 1/2 to three months.
Ranchers are also subject to requirements due to endangered species that inhabit the grasslands.
Ball, whose family farm is 100 years old this year, said $1.35 AUM seems like a dream price on the surface, but because permit holders cover maintenance costs without gaining any individual value from improvements, the costs in reality are much higher.
“We pay dearly to graze on that land that’s right next to us,” Ball said. “It’s for convenience, but we pay our fair share.”
State trust land
Ball, like many others, also pays for permission to graze cattle on state trust land, but that system is an entirely different animal, in many ways.
When Colorado earned statehood in 1876, the federal government designated that every 16th and 32nd section of each township would be entrusted to the state, and revenue generated off those parcels would go toward K-12 education.
“When the old timers talk about school sections, it wasn’t because they built a school on it; it was because it’s in the school trust,” said Matthew Pollart, district manager for the Colorado State Land Board.
Pollart’s agency doles out leases for purposes like grazing and hunting on the surface of the ground and for purposes like oil and gas exploration below the surface.
Ranchers like Ball lease the land on which their cattle run, and they own any improvements they make. Pollart said the state will sometimes help lessees pay for improvements, so the state will own part or all of something like a water system or a fence.
While federal grazing permits normally only change hands through real estate transactions, state trust leases come up for bid every 10 years. In many cases, those leases have been in families for generations, but Pollart said his office is seeing more people bidding on land that’s up for grabs.
When considering competing bids, Pollart’s office gives preference to an existing leaseholder, if that person agrees to at least match the competing bid and if that person has been a responsible land owner. Pollart said the state considers three main things when someone applies to lease state trust land: stewardship, revenue and the applicant’s stability in the local agricultural industry.
“We require sound stewardship so that we have these trust land contributing to the school trust for many generations to come,” Pollart said.
If a person wins out over an existing leaseholder, the new owner must reimburse the former owner for improvements on the property. Pollart said if the two can’t come to an agreement on the worth of those improvements, he’ll do an audit or he’ll have an outside agency conduct an audit.
Pollart explained that in order to set the state’s AUM rate, researchers conduct a survey of grazing rates on private lands. The state’s rate is set at 72 percent of that price, a discounted rate to account for the fact that the leaseholder will be responsible for improvements on that ground, he said.
William Woolston, district resource specialist for the office, said the land board is keeping a closer eye on how leaseholders are taking care of the land. But just as his family did with their state trust land, most ranchers treat their leased land as if it were their own, he said.
“We hope they look at it as something they should take care of because of the way we approach them,” Woolston said.
Pollart said when drought or overgrazing threaten the wellbeing of the land, his office can tell leaseholders to back off on the number of head the graze. He said in recent years and currently in the southeastern part of the state, the land board will offer to discount their annual grazing fee. For example, if a rancher is asked to cut his grazing herd in half, his grazing fee would be cut to match that.
For the most part, Pollart said state lessees are understanding in those situations.
“We share an interest there,” he said. “We’re partners.”
Ball said historically, his family has seen the system between the federal government and ranchers with grazing permits work in a practical and amicable way.
But as the Forest Service is dealing with more and more groups who stake a claim to one purpose or another in the grasslands, those competing interests are making it increasingly difficult to work with the agency on grazing.
“If I had my 10,000 acres up there that I graze on come up for sale for market price tomorrow, I’d buy it, and I wouldn’t deal with the Forest Service,” he said.
Fankhauser said you’d likely hear the same sentiment from any rancher who has a federal grazing permit, but they also understand that land is part of their livelihood.
“I think every one of them would tell you they would prefer not to utilize federal land because of the cost and the time associated with it,” he said.
Reghan Cloudman, spokeswoman for the Forest Service, said her agency meets monthly with the boards of each grazing association in an effort to work through any concerns. She said issues like shortened grazing seasons often strike a bad chord, but the associations have been willing to work through competing interests.
She added that agency relies on ranchers for a great deal of information on grassland conditions.
“We’re obviously going to have those conflicts at times, but ranching is an important part of the heritage of the grasslands,” she said. “Those associations have been around since the ‘30s and ‘40s, and they have a lot of knowledge.”
At the state level, Pollart said the challenge is making sure lessees who share the same ground for different purposes can both still operate efficiently. When oil and gas companies hold mineral right leases below and a rancher has an agricultural lease above ground, his office works with both parties to ensure they can coexist.
“We take on the challenge of making those compatible,” he said. “In almost every case, we find a way to make that mineral and ag lessee work together.”
Peterson said he recognizes there are inherently some disagreements between ranchers and the government on grazing issues, but they don’t rise to the level of what happened with Bundy.
“As far as I’m concerned, it works wonderfully,” he said. “We have our disagreements of course with the forest service, but they have a lot of masters who are not quite in tune with what we’re doing running cattle.”
(Information in this story has been corrected.)