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History of Grazing in Utah

Livestock grazing in Utah began with the arrival of the pioneers in 1847. Livestock production has since increased over the years to parallel territory and population growth.

By 1890, the range throughout the west was beyond capacity. Heavy grazing on these lands in the early part of the twentieth-century left the rangelands depleted and watersheds damaged. Additional repercussions of over used lands included soil erosion and an increase in natural disasters, such as floods that occurred largely because of bare ground created by poorly managed livestock herds.

It was during this time that the federal government established forest reserves in the form of the National Forest Service in an effort to curtail overgrazing and harmful watershed side-effects. This period marked the beginning of the scientific-range-management style that we see on our lands today (Banner et al., 2009).

Sheep Were Dominant

Sheep production was the dominant livestock sector in Utah at the start of the 1900s, reaching a peak of nearly three million sheep and lambs by 1930 (Banner et al, 2009).

In 1929, at the onset of the Great Depression, wool was selling at the highest price ever. This trend, however, like everything else in the economy, was badly hurt by the economic downturn and was sent tumbling downward in 1929 (Murphy, 1996).

Since that time, the sheep industry has declined by more than 89 percent (Banner et al., 2009). In addition to declining wool prices, Congress passed the Taylor Grazing Act in 1934 to restore damaged watersheds and limit grazing. These new measures had significant effects on the number of sheep in Utah, reducing them by almost one million following the passage of this act. (USU Extension, 2011).

Cattle Now Rule

This period of decline in the sheep industry was followed by growth in the beef industry, as producers switched from sheep to cattle. The number of beef cows in Utah has nearly doubled since 1920 (Banner et al., 2009) to become what is now the dominant sector in Utah agriculture (Godfrey, 2008).

Grazing is Changing

In Utah, there are nearly 45 million acres of grazing land; 73 percent federally owned, 9 percent state owned, and 18 percent privately owned (GOPB, 2011).

The largest portion of this grazing, done on federal lands, is currently decreasing. Federal grazing permits are allotted in Animal Unit Months, or (AUMs). An AUM is the amount of forage required to feed an animal unit the equivalent of a mature, 1,000 pound cow for one month. On BLM lands, AUM’s have declined from 2,749,000 in 1940 to less than 675,000 AUMs in 2009, a four-fold reduction (Banner et al., 2009).

Forest Service lands have experienced a similar decline, decreasing from 2.7 million AUMs in the 1940s, to 614,000 in 2008.

While the percentage of forage harvested by livestock on federal lands is decreasing, the total number of AUMs in the state has remained relatively stable over the past 60 years (Godfrey, 2008). This seems to suggest that an increasing percentage of feed may be coming from privately-owned feed sources.

Utah BLM currently manages approximately 22 million acres of land in the State. Many of Utah’s BLM grazing allotments are ‘common’ allotments where more than one permittee is authorized to use the allotment. Grazing on these allotments is authorized through the issuance of grazing permits that provided for just over 675,000 AUMs in 2008.

Utah citizens, including ranchers, have a great appreciation for vibrant, healthy rangelands and wildlife. However, the age old questions of who should bear the costs, and who receives the benefits from publicly owned wildlife, often puts a disproportionate burden on the agricultural community. This issue is not isolated to Utah, and is amplified in the western states where there is a high percentage of public land. Among the western states, Utah has been the most proactive in efforts to resolve this dilemma.

Frequently, when resources are held in the public trust, there is an inherent lack of accountability and incentives to manage those resources at the highest level. The ‘Perverse Triangle of Incentives’ (figure 3) graphically demonstrates the issue. Wildlife belong to the public, who has limited opportunity to manage for those values. The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) has the responsibility to manage the wildlife, but DWR doesn’t own the wildlife or the habitat on which they are so dependent. Landowners own the habitat (in the case of private land) and as permittees, are the key players in grazing management on public land. However, landowners have little opportunity or incentive to manage for wildlife values.

The Utah Legislature recognized this issue and created the Cooperative Wildlife Management Unit (CWMU) program to provide incentives for large private land owners to manage for wildlife values. The program has resulted in vastly increased hunting opportunities and has mostly resolved wildlife/rancher conflicts on large private land holdings. However, restitution of damages to crop land is still inadequate. The program, guided by DWR, puts management in the hands of those most capable to achieve results and allows these large landowners to recover the cost of production for wildlife. Finding similar programs to provide solutions for smaller operations has been elusive.

The health of Utah’s public and private rangeland resources will depend on our ability to provide incentives to ranchers, who have the greatest capability/opportunity to manage the land sustainably. If Utah is to improve the health of its public and private rangelands/watersheds, the State will need to provide guidance and incentives to achieve a high level of grazing management on a large scale. The scientifically based principles to accomplish improved management are well known, but the technical guidance, social recognition, political will, and financial resources to bridge this gap are in short supply. Land owners and permittees are the ‘boots on the ground’ needed to achieve ecologic sustainability and create wealth from the land to be sustainable.

Well managed livestock grazing, though poorly understood by the average citizen, is the most effective way to manage vegetation on a large scale to benefit watershed health and preserve wildlife habitat. Improving grazing management on Utah’s public and private rangelands should be viewed as ‘high leverage’ and a long-term priority. A 1998 Government Accounting Office report titled, Forest Service Barriers to Generating Revenue or Reducing Costs, portrays the importance of ‘economic sustainability’ on US Forest Service Lands and demonstrates the critical importance of multiple uses for the lands. The report provides good examples for a more ‘capitalistic’ approach to public land management based on private land models.