Cattle have been grazing on the land inside the newly formed Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument since the area was settled by Mormons in 1870. But, grazing in the monument may be on the way out. Conservationists have wanted cattle removed from the monument's sensitive areas for years and now they are buying grazing rights from ranchers. The grazing rights are then retired through negotiations with the BLM. But local ranchers say the BLM is required by law to keep cattle grazing on those lands. They want the grazing allotments put back in action. This poses a complex problem for Conservation groups who paid for the allotments, and for the BLM who wants to mitigate the harmful effects of cattle grazing on certain parts of the monument.


How the West was grazed, Cowboys, Cattle,--and Politics?

Cattle ranching on public land seems as much a part of the west as the mountains and deserts that provide the backdrop. If you were to ask most city dwelling Americans where their beef came from, they would probably answer “out west” in the open lands of the Colorado Plateau, Wyoming, or Eastern Oregon. Yet this has not been the case for a long time. Today only 3.5% of all domestic beef production comes from ranching operations using public land. The other 96.5% are raised on private land in more fertile areas like Florida, Tennessee, and Western Oregon. In these areas it takes only one acre to feed and sustain one cow, whereas it takes 11-20 acres in the arid lands of the west and southwest. The economic reality in the west is that cattle ranching only accounts for .06% of jobs and .04% of income[1]. Despite this, cattle ranching is still perceived by many westerners as paramount to the economic stability of the rural west.

Environmentalists complain that even though cattle ranching does little for the overall economy, it retains major political pull in western states and the U.S. Congress[2]. They argue that this power has allowed cattle ranching to remain on sensitive public lands where other less environmentally damaging practices have been removed or banned. Environmentalists also complain that cattle ranching on public land is a heavily subsidized industry. The current grazing fee on federal lands is a $1.35 per animal unit month (AUM—the amount of land needed to feed one cow and one calf for a month). That compares to $12 per AUM for grazing on private land, and as high as $22 on state lands. Add in administrative and range improvement costs, and the federal government spends around $400 million a year to preserve cattle ranching on public lands[3].

John Wayne’s cattle—the untold story

Large-scale Cattle ranching in the arid areas of the Southwest began after the Civil War. By 1907 overstocking and overgrazing was already a major problem on the range. A drought that year exacerbated the problem causing a die-off of thousands, possibly millions of cattle throughout the West and Southwest. By 1933 there were 20 million cattle on an area of land that could only support 11 million. In 1934 the cattle ranching industry asked the government to intervene and the Grazing Service was initiated to monitor range conditions and allocate grazing rights. In 1946 the Grazing Service was replaced with the BLM. The BLM had more money and authority to improve range conditions, but it continued to issue grazing permits willingly.

The impacts of historical overstocking and overgrazing have been long lasting. A 1988 General Accounting Office report revealed that 29% of BLM grazing land was in good condition and 43% was at best fair, at worst poor. A 1990 EPA report on grazing claimed, “extensive field observation in the 1980’s suggest riparian areas throughout much of the West were in the worst condition in history”[4].

“Cattle grazing has converted many of the riparian habitats in the arid West into communities dominated by habitat generalists and weedy species such as dandelions, cheatgrass, cowbirds, and small-mouth bass, and by upland or abundant species such as sagebrush, juniper, and speckled dace. As a result, both habitat quality and native species diversity have been severely reduced.”— 1999 article in The Journal of Soil and Water Conservation on the findings of a team of ecologists who surveyed 143 scientific reports on grazing.

Recognizing the problem with overgrazing and grazing around streams and riparian areas, most cattle ranchers have reformed grazing policies and techniques. Today ranchers use progressive techniques to abate the negative environmental effects of grazing; rotational grazing, fencing off sensitive areas, and removing cattle from drought stricken land, are a few examples. Ranchers and some scientists believe that with environmentally sensitive techniques, cattle grazing actually improves the condition of the land. However, in some remote grazing allotments progressive grazing techniques are hard, if not impossible, to implement. In these areas cattle are generally allowed to roam free. Many of the grazing allotments in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument are of this type. Cattle damage to the riparian areas surrounding several small creeks and the Escalante River have many environmentalists, including the Grand Canyon Trust, questioning the BLM’s grazing policies and the monument’s multiple use mandate (learn more about monument management in the Grand Staircase-Escalante regional management issue profile).

Grazing legislation

Starting with the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934, several key pieces of Congressional legislation effect grazing in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The Taylor Grazing Act of 1934’s main purpose was to stabilize the ranching industry by regulating the range conditions and issuing grazing permits. The Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 established “multiple-use” and “sustained yield” as the primary land management focus. Multiple-use requires land management for economic, recreational, and scientific purposes without causing excessive degradation to resources. Sustained yield calls for perpetual productive output of the various renewable resources on public lands. The National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 also effects grazing. It requires an EIS, an environmental review process that takes an average 1.5 years and $1 million, before major actions are taken by government agencies. Some grazing management changes, including those in the Escalante area, require an EIS.

Of greatest importance to retiring grazing allotments is the sustained yield requirement. This makes permanently retiring grazing allotments on public land very difficult because it requires sustainable resources, such as rangeland, be managed for continued economic productivity. The BLM cannot retire a grazing allotment unless it has been scientifically proven that the allotment cannot support cattle. This means that whenever a grazing allotment permit is not being used by the permittee it is forfeited and transferred to someone who will use it. Many grazing opponents believe sustainable yield is all that stands in the way of eliminating grazing on public land altogether.

Grazing in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

Until Clinton designated the area a National Monument, cows roamed free on the Grand Staircase and in the Escalante Canyons. President Clinton stipulated that grazing allotments and permits were not to be changed with National Monument status. The BLM has complied and allowed grazing to continue—In 2000 there were still 127 grazing allotment permits with 75,000 AUMs in the monument[5]. Some of these allotments are in sensitive areas and areas where recreational use is high. BLM managers have expressed concern about cattle grazing in these areas, but have found getting ranchers to remove cattle is very difficult[6].

“We are required to manage this land for grazing, for wildlife and for other multi-uses. Not just for today. That means that if we determine that this range land cannot sustain more grazing, we must ask the permittees to move their cattle.”—Kate Cannon, BLM manager of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument[7].

A 2001 effort by then-monument director, Kate Cannon, to remove 50 head of cattle from overgrazed 50 Mile Mountain (90% of the foliage had been eaten, GSENM standards require cattle be removed if 60% is eaten) was blocked by the Utah State Office of the BLM because of pressure from ranchers[8]. Cattle had been removed and impounded from 50 Mile Mountain in 2000 but ranchers simply took them back while local law enforcement watched[9].


Although allotment retirement requires the willing participation of ranchers, many of whom stand to gain significantly from the sale of permits, many have expressed outrage at the Grand Canyon Trust’s efforts toretire grazing allotments. Ranching is a way of life for many locals, who site that grazing on the monument was expressly protected by then-President Bill Clinton when he declared the area a National Monument. Ranchers see allotment retirement as a direct contradiction of what they were promised. And they claim that the BLM and Environmentalists are colluding to completely eliminate grazing from public lands.

“Apparently, the BLM has adopted a policy that would eliminate grazing from the monument. Contrary to President Clinton’s Proclamation which specifically preserved grazing, the BLM is working with preservation groups to put us out of business.”—Worth Brown, Canyon Country Ranchers Association[13].

In response Ranchers have formed the Canyon Country Ranchers Association (CCRA), a group of about 80 area ranchers with three main priorities: (1) develop strategies to preserve livestock grazing on public lands, (2) develop better land and ecosystem stewardship, and (3) develop better planning relationships with federal and state land managers and related agencies. In March 2002, just prior to the BLM’s release of the Environmental Assessment calling for retiring certain allotments, The CCRA vowed it would challenge in federal court any reductions in grazing rights, claiming they “would rather stand a fighting chance in court than this agency-trust action that takes their grazing rights away forever.[14]” Historically ranchers have found success in court. A 1999 U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Public Lands Council v. Babbitt found that a grazing permit could not be used for conservation use only because it must be used for grazing to comply with “sustained yield” stipulations in the Public Land Policy and Management Act of 1976. This ruling should not effect the Grand Canyon Trust because its allotments are held by the Canyonlands Grazing Corporation. The CCRA claim alleges that the BLM violated laws that require a thorough public review process because the decision to retire the allotments was made months prior to the existence of any planning documents or public review. According to CCRA Chairman, Worth Brown, “Without a sweetheart deal with the Trust, the BLM would have a daunting task justifying the range analysis and complying with the proper planning procedures that would allow the relinquishment of these grazing permits.” And they claim, “The BLM is clearly biased to achieve the Trust’s purposes.[15]” Monument planner Dave Wolfe, denied this claim, “There are times when adjustments are made (to grazing policy). There are no conspiracies or secret deals, but there will be changes (to grazing) in the future.[16]”

A lawsuit has not yet been filed by CCRA, in the event it is filed, the outcome will undoubtedly have a major impact on conservation efforts in the monument. It will also have an impact on the preferred alternative of the Livestock Management EIS.

The future of grazing on the monument and the CCRA might have found an ally in the Bush Administration. Former monument director Kate Cannon was ordered by Bush’s BLM directors to take a job at BLM’s Washington headquarters because local ranchers and politicians complained about her decisions pertaining to cattle ranching[17]. President Bush has historically supported the ranching industry and has promised to have his administration review decisions made by the Clinton Administration[18]—including Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.


The Grand Canyon Trust (GCT) and several other conservation organizations have proposed removing cattle from sensitive areas by retiring (not allowing grazing permenantly) grazing allotments. However, the BLM is powerless to retire grazing allotments unless they are scientifically proven to be unfit for cattle. To get around this GCT has volunteered to buy grazing allotment permits from ranchers and hold them until an EIS can be completed by the BLM. Ranchers are not forced into selling their allotments, they are simply offered the market price. This price can often help them move their operation to less sensitive areas, fund retirement, or change occupations. In total GCT has spent $1.5 million on 325,000 acres of grazing allotments[10].

To make the operation legal, GCT has established the Canyonlands Grazing Corporation, a non-profit grazing entity, which purchases and holds the allotments. The Canyonlands Grazing Corporation holds leases on State Trust Land where it allows grazing by “exemplary livestock operators”. Since it is a ligetimate grazing entity, the Canyonlonds Grazing Corporation fulfills the “sustained yield” requirement for holding grazing permits. According to the GCT website, “The Corporation allows us to simply buy permits from willing sellers and then negotiate their retirement directly with the BLM as an affected permittee rather than merely as an interested bystander”[11].

Keeping with their part of the bargain, in May 2002 the BLM released an Environmental Assessment of a proposed Plan Amendment to the Escalante and Paria Management Framework Plans. The Plan Amendment would eliminate grazing on several of the allotments bought and held by the Grand Canyon Trust. The BLM is also in the process of a comprehensive Environmental Impact Statement on grazing in the monument. The findings of the EIS will determine where, and how grazing should continue. The BLM has not yet identified a preferred management alternative, but the preliminary alternatives include; (1) issuing the permit based on the application for permit renewal; (2) issuing a new permit with the same terms and conditions as the expiring permit (No Action Alternative); (3) issuing a new permit with modifications to the existing terms and conditions; and (4) a no grazing alternative. The BLM assures that one of the main planning criteria is, “Decisions in the plan/EIS will be those necessary to provide for the long-term health, diversity, and productivity of BLM lands, including the proper functioning of physical and biological processes required to sustain these values. Long-term sustainability will be given priority over short-term uses.”[12] Decisions must also follow the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, making it doubtful that grazing will be completely eliminated from the monument. What does seem for certain is that some controls will be introduced to better preserve the monument’s fragile areas.

Related Colorado Plateau Issues:

· Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument Multiple Management.
· Public Lands Grazing on the Colorado Plateau

Contacts For More Information:

Grand Canyon Trust grazing page

BLM Grand Staircase-Escalante Homepage

Wilderness Society Grazing Page

Environmental Assessment press release (BLM)

BLM history of grazing including grazing legislation page

BLM Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 page


Profile Prepared by:

Jeremiah Centrella, Colorado College, June 2002.


[1] Watkins, T.H. High Noon in Cattle Country Sierra Magazine 2000. available at

[2] Watkins, T.H. High Noon in Cattle Country Sierra Magazine 2000. available at

[3] Kerr, Andy Essay: Permits for Cash: A fair and equitable resolution to the public land range war. 2001. Available at

[4] Watkins, T.H. High Noon in Cattle Country Sierra Magazine 2000. available at

[5] Bureau of Land Management BLM Utah--GRAZING MANAGMENT AND RANGE

[6] Escalante Wilderness Project press release—Cattle Impoundment nixed on GSENM. Nov 20, 2001. Available at CATTLE IMPOUNDMENT NIXED ON GSENM

[7] Cart, Julie Amid Drought, A Range War Erupts in Utah Over Grazing Restrictions Los Angeles Times. Dec 26, 2000 PG A1.

[8] Escalante Wilderness Project press release—Cattle Impoundment nixed on GSENM. Nov 20, 2001. Available at CATTLE IMPOUNDMENT NIXED ON GSENM

[9] Cart, Julie Amid Drought, A Range War Erupts in Utah Over Grazing Restrictions Los Angeles Times. Dec 26, 2000 PG A1.

[10] Warchol, Glen Ranchers Vow Fight Over Grazing Rights The Salt Lake Tribune March 7, 2002.

[11] Grand Canyon Trust: Grazing Retirements

[12] Livestock Management EIS Update Letter #1, July-2001

[13] Southern Utah ranchers challenge BLM’s elimination of grazing. Vernal Express March 6, 2002.

[14] Warchol, Glen Ranchers vow fight over grazing rights The Salt Lake Tribune march 7, 2002.

[15] Warchol, Glen Ranchers vow fight over grazing rights The Salt Lake Tribune march 7, 2002.

[16] Warchol, Glen Ranchers vow fight over grazing rights The Salt Lake Tribune march 7, 2002.

[17] Kenworthy, Ken Land agency accused of personnel ‘purge’ USA Today March 11, 2002 Pg. 3A.

[18] Lazaroff, Cat Bush says economy overrides environmental issues Environment News Services March 29, 2001.