Americans love ranchers: Gritty ranchers, mom-and-pop ranchers, renegade ranchers — especially those who raise livestock on the vast open prairies of the West through hard work and rugged independence. But there’s another side to the ever-popular rancher mythology— a side the media doesn’t cover and the public never sees.
The Koch brothers, Ted Turner, the Hilton family and nine other powerful ranchers share an uncommon privilege: giant public subsidies, unknown to U.S. taxpayers. It’s the other side of the Cliven Bundy story, the other side of the Wright brothers saga—the bronc-riding, ranching family at the center of the New York Times photographic essay published March 11, 2015. It’s also the other side of the ongoing news feed in which ranchers work to remove wild horses from public lands.
That “other side” of those stories is the federal grazing program that enables the Wrights to run their livestock on public lands for cheap; allows ranchers to have thousands of protected wild horses removed from public lands at public expense. It’s also the program that earned Bundy the title of welfare rancher.
Bundy didn’t earn it by failing to pay his grazing fees, though. The welfare rancher label applies to all ranchers who hold permits to graze the vast public spaces of the West, both delinquent and not. It includes the Wright brothers; the ranchers in Iron and Beaver counties in Utah complaining that wild horses eat too much; and 21,000 others.
They are all welfare ranchers subsidized by US taxpayers, and you know who are the biggest welfare ranchers of all, grazing livestock across hundreds of millions of acres of public grass and forest land, all assisted by public subsidies paid for by US taxpayers?
Billionaires appearing on Forbes rich lists
The .01 percenters are the nation’s biggest welfare ranchers, according to numerous environmental and policy groups; and it’s time they brought some attention to themselves and the federal grazing program they’re exploiting to the tune of an annual estimated one billion dollars in taxpayer subsidies while causing long-term damage to one of the public’s most treasured assets.
Fifteen years ago, two percent of public lands ranchers controlled fifty percent of permitted grazing acreage, according to John Horning, Executive Director of WildEarth Guardians.
Today, Horning says, that elite group of mega-rich owners has consolidated its hold on federal grazing property even further through grazing leases attached to the larger-than-life ranches they inherit or buy outright.
Along with that comes all kinds of perks paid for by taxpayers: the USDA’s wildlife services, which killed four million endangered and predator species in 2013 to help livestock operators. The costly and wildly ineffective Wild Horses and Burros Program which operates to the benefit of welfare ranchers. Numerous programs that work to undo the grazing damage that welfare livestock causes. And let’s not forget the bank loans that an estimated 45% of public lands ranchers obtain, using their grazing leases as collateral, and which heighten the value of their primary ranching property.
Only 2.7 percent of the nation’s ranchers hold such leases. That’s a lot of costly benefits flowing to a small segment of the livestock industry. That two percent of them hold more than fifty percent of the acreage under that program? Never mind that two of the recipients love to attack all welfare programs that benefit the bottom tier of the economic pyramid. It’s the antithesis of rugged independence. It’s undemocratic, too.
Their faces are absent from the media’s coverage of ranchers. Some of that is is laziness. The other part is resources. It takes a lot of digging to identify any public lands ranchers with precision. Why? Because the Bureau of Land Management and US Forest Service (which administer most federal grazing leases) have record-keeping systems that are the antithesis of transparent. There is no central database. Finding out who’s doing what on federal lands requires identifying all the various LLCs that ranchers establish to hide who they are, then tracking down leases in 10 Western states.
The BLM, for its part, isn’t eager to help. Call any BLM specialist and identify yourself as media, and they send you to a media representative. Most I reached out to didn’t return phone calls—not promptly, anyway. You want information? You’ll be stuck sending out Freedom of Information Act requests. I sent on April3, 2014. It’s still outstanding.
Paul Rogers of the San Jose Mercury News spent nine months collecting information on 26,000 grazing leases in order to publish a comprehensive article (“Cash Cows”) in 1999 on the money pit that was the federal grazing program at that time. Many of the same players are still in the game, but the process of keeping tabs using real records is so arduous that no environmental groups do it.
The way I came up with the names in the accompanying photo gallery was by interviewing groups working to reform public lands grazing and cross-checking names against news reports online. The estimates provided of leased acreage were provided by Jon Marvel, founder of Western Watersheds Project. Net worth figures and list rankings are from Forbes; the rankings of richest land owners from the Land Report 100.
It’s not an exact science, but one thing is clear: the public is being lulled by stories about bronc riders like the Wright brothers and outliers like Cliven Bundy while missing the big picture: a handful of cattle rustlers—rich ones—whose hands are deep in the public’s pockets, along with all the other smaller permittees.
And that’s what ranching in the West is like. It’s still rough and tumble. But if you don’t have a big-ass ranch, a huge fortune and public assistance, you’d best just head for the hills.
This is Part IV of an ongoing SourceWatch series on ranchers in the media:
Part I: The Media Loves Ranchers. Here’s Why They Shouldn’t
Part II: Sustainable Cowboys or Welfare Ranchers of the American West? (an economic analysis of the federal grazing program; contains a reading list of articles and books)
Part III: Bad Ranchers, Bad Cows (peer-reviewed study of damage caused by cattle grazing in a national wildlife refuge)
For more on this topic, follow us on Twitter @dailypitchfork or check out these other Daily Pitchfork features:
Allan Savory’s Fantasy Thrills Ranchers, But He’s Wrong
Guardian’s Wild Horse Meat Story Contains 92% Beef (article review)
Grass-Fraud Beef (article review)
Misrepresenting Wild Horses At The New York Times (article review)