Column: How welfare ranchers take taxpayers for a ride

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As published by Pacific Standard

Congress is expected to vote sometime this week on an omnibus-spending bill that includes a proposal to kill wild horses captured from public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, and re-open horse slaughterhouses that were shut down in 2007. Should the main backer of this proposal—Congressman Chris Stewart (R-Utah)—get the required votes, 46,000 wild mustangs, and untold numbers of domestic horses, would be slaughtered.

Based on the claim that wild horses overgraze Western landscapes, the BLM routinely removes them and places them in temporary holding facilities—mostly in Nevada, Utah, and New Mexico—before moving the horses to permanent corrals. By closing these facilities and opting to put down the horses, backers of the bill note taxpayers will save $10 million a year. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke supports the measure on account of its fiscal belt-tightening.

But that $10 million in savings requires some context. Ranchers leasing BLM land cost taxpayers an estimated $500 million a year (and probably much more—some say a billion dollars). According to Stephen Nash’s Grand Canyon for Sale, about 15,000 ranchers receive a $33,000 [subsidy] from the federal government annually.

This windfall of this bill comes in the form of radically reduced leasing fees (that some ranchers, such as Cliven Bundy, refuse to pay altogether). The cost of grazing cattle on privately owned land in the West is $21.60. BLM ranchers pay a $1.41 per acre. In essence, ranchers on BLM land have 94 percent of their grazing costs covered by taxpayers. “Welfare ranchers,” as critics call them, target wild horses for removal in order to preserve the rangeland that makes this program possible.

These subsidies apply to only 2.7 percent of livestock producers in the US. Six percent of beneficiaries get 66 percent of the proceeds. So, rather than these subsidies leading to cheaper meat (which might, depending on one’s economic philosophy, justify them), the program tends to benefit corporate ranchers with names such as Koch, Walmart, and Hilton.

When these renters pay their fees, the revenue from $1.41 per acre does not necessary go toward reducing BLM costs. Instead, the vast majority of the proceeds collected from the ranchers’ reduced fees goes back into the ranching infrastructure, improving fences and enriching rangeland vegetation for cattle, thereby shoring up an industry that already costs between $500 million and $1 billion per year to support.

The environmental costs of doing so can also be significant. According to Western Watersheds Project, a conservation non-profit, “Public lands ranching is the most widespread commercial use of public lands in the United States. Ranching is one of the primary causes of native species endangerment in the American West; it is also the most significant cause of non-point source water pollution and desertification.”

The bill in question might very well lead to the BLM saving $10 million a year by reducing the cost of housing horses and burros captured on the western range. But it will do so while strengthening an industry—cattle ranching—whose cost far exceeds the savings that would come from horse slaughter.