by Lilly Platts
The introduction of a bill that would allow the voluntary sale and subsequent retirement of grazing permits has raised alarm amongst ranchers and supporters of agriculture. Congressman Adam Smith (D-WA) introduced the Voluntary Grazing Permit Retirement Act (H.R. 5737) on January 30.
Representative Smith called his bill a “common-sense solution to provide for smarter management of our public lands to the benefit of the environment, wildlife, and ranchers.” He added that voluntary grazing permit retirement is a proven way to reduce conflicts on public lands and his act will ensure the option is available to ranchers in the West. In announcing the bill, he points directly to livestock grazing conflicts as a reason to allow the retirement of permits.
“In many cases, simply removing livestock is the best solution to reduce or resolve these conflicts,” Congressman Smith said.
Not surprisingly, organizations including the Public Lands Council (PLC) and NCBA have announced opposition to the bill. Bob Sitz, owner and operator at Sitz Angus Ranch in Harrison Montana, said bills like this are aimed directly at those who graze livestock on public lands.
“They want to make it easier to eliminate ranching,” Sitz said.
Sitz has significant experience with public lands issues, both as a grazing permit holder, and as an advocate for ranchers. He explained that bills like this have been proposed before. However, due to the population imbalance between cities and rural areas, ranchers get less representation.
“Bills like this have come and gone,” Sitz said. “The problem we have, both in Washington and rural Montana, is population controls a lot of what happens in our legislatures, both state and federal. We tend to get outvoted.”
Sitz said many of his neighbors are already being pushed off of their BLM permits due to the cost of predators alone – in Montana, dollars paid to ranchers from the state to compensate for grizzly and wolf kills was at a record high in 2019. As of now, if a rancher is pushed off a grazing permit due to financial strain from, say, livestock depredation, the permit becomes available to another producer.
Currently, a person or business must own base property to attain a BLM permit. H.R. 5737 would open the door to those who do not meet this requirement.
“They have tried to get grazing permits, and they have been defeated because they don’t have base property,” Sitz said. “By having a requirement of base property, those permits stay in agriculture. Those groups cannot force the BLM or forest service to give up that permit, and they cannot get in a bidding war.”
The bill’s official announcement was accompanied by a supporter’s list of 17 large environmental groups including Western Watersheds Project, the Animal Welfare Institute, and the Center for Biological Diversity.
The bill is being pointed to as a veiled attempt to force permits out of the hands of ranchers.
“This bill is structured on a falsehood. Often the relinquishment of a grazing permit isn’t voluntary, it’s coerced through litigation or the threat of litigation. A rancher has the option to accept a buyout, and if it makes sense for their operation there is a place for that. But to mandate a permanent retirement on that permit denies the next generation opportunity and deprives the range of the management benefit livestock grazing provides,” American Sheep Industry Association Senior Policy and Information Director Chase Adams said.
“Research from facilities like the U.S. Sheep Experiment Station in Dubois, Idaho has shown over and over again that grazing is beneficial to range health and supports habitat for wildlife species. The agencies like the Forest Service and BLM rely on grazing to meet their land management goals, the economy of the west relies on the income generated by livestock, and the nation relies on the food and fiber produced. This bill threatens every one of those aspects in an attempt to pander to a handful of activists.”
As of the end of January, the bill had 10 Democratic supporters.