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SOURCE WATCH

Forbes Billionaires Top US Welfare Ranchers List

They're mega-rich, powerful and on public assistance. [Part IV of an ongoing series on ranchers in the media]

Guess who's fleecing U.S. taxpayers over nearly one billion dollars in public grazing subsidies?

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)

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About Vickery Eckhoff (10 Articles)
Vickery Eckhoff is the co-founder and executive editor of The Daily Pitchfork. Her articles on wild horses, public lands grazing and the meat industry have been published in Forbes, the Huffington Post, Newsweek/The Daily Beast, Alternet and Salon.
Contact: Website

35 Comments on Forbes Billionaires Top US Welfare Ranchers List

  1. Great Article Vickery!

    James Anaquad Kleinert – Director Wild Horses & Renegades
    http://www.theamericanwildhorse.com

  2. Barbara Warner // March 25, 2015 at 9:55 am // Reply

    Many thanks, Vickery, for another excellent article .

  3. Can’t even afford to buy hamburger, it’s at T-Bone prices.

  4. Jan Schultz // March 25, 2015 at 10:50 am // Reply

    Thank you, Vickery. Even these pointers published for us to think about are good. I know how difficult it is to get any real information from BLM. I appreciate this information you have provided and hand in hand with other bits and pieces we will figure this out. It is imperative that the American public realize the open land, our public wildlands, are being destroyed and made inaccessible – slowly but surely moving them into private hands. These mega money hoarders are criminals in suits.

  5. You are running for president yes ? I’m voting for you !

  6. Wonderful, invaluable investigative reporting. This provides key information for piecing together the jigsaw puzzle of forces threatening the existence of our public lands and the natural species that inhabitant them. Required reading for all environmentalists and wild horse advocates.

  7. Karen Chapman // March 25, 2015 at 1:05 pm // Reply

    Awesome Article !!
    No wonder we can’t get the BLM to stop taking our Mustangs off the Public grazing lands. NOT one of us has the DEEP pockets these rich people have to lobby in Washington DC!!
    As the old saying goes, HE WHO HAS THE MONEY HAS THE POWER!! What can we do about it???

  8. Kathleen Ryan // March 25, 2015 at 1:26 pm // Reply

    Thank you Vickery. For all the work you do for horses. DO you have any updates as to what is going on with the EU and horse slaughter in Mexico and Canada.

    • Thank you for your comment. And I hope you won’t mind my interjecting that my aim isn’t to help horses but to educate the public. As to your question, I have not seen anything new on that topic recently that hasn’t been announced elsewhere.

  9. Kathleen Ryan // March 25, 2015 at 1:47 pm // Reply

    In educating the public, I believe that you are helping horses.

  10. sue carter // March 25, 2015 at 1:54 pm // Reply

    It is high time the Sec. of the Interior and the Wild Horse & Burro Advisory Board re-read the Act. For too long, Wild Horses have been looked at as Livestock. they are not. The very designation of “Wild” Horses in the very title of The Act, suggests otherwise.
    As “components” of the Public Land Wild Horses are to be managed at a minimal level, as Wildlife, nor as Livestock, as the Welfare Ranchers would like you to believe.

    “….The Secretary shall manage wild free-roaming horses and burros in a manner that is designed to achieve and maintain a thriving natural ecological balance on the public lands. He shall consider the recommendations of qualified scientists in the field of biology and ecology, some of whom shall be independent of both Federal and State agencies and may include members of the Advisory Board established in section 1337 of this title. All management activities shall be at the minimal feasible level and shall be carried out in consultation with the wildlife agency of the State wherein such lands are located in order to protect the natural ecological balance of all wildlife species which inhabit such lands, particularly endangered wildlife species. Any adjustments in forage allocations on any such lands shall take into consideration the needs of other wildlife species which inhabit such lands.”
    16 U.S.C. 1333

    The reference to “forage allocations” is to “other wildlife species” NOT cattle. Looks like the cattlemen really pulled a switcheroo and we fell for it. Time for a show-down at the OK Corral and run these guys out of Dodge.

  11. Vickery,

    When I made that previous comment I was referring to your earlier series of articles that was an investigation of the horse industry; investigating racing, breeding, responsible ownership and the political and industry forces that were working to open horse slaughterhouses again in the US

  12. This is what the New York Times and other media outlets SHOULD be publishing. Thank you for it.

  13. Great write up to facts on WHAT IS REALLY GOING ON! We need to get this information out to all of the public to be educated on. Enough is enough. I will not tolerate my tax dollars being used in this way, it has for years, and it must stop. As I have always said…it all comes down to money and greed (politics). What it should boil down to is MORALS. Keep writing articles like this….exposure is needed!

  14. sandra longley // March 25, 2015 at 7:21 pm // Reply

    while I agree whole heartedly with your article, I have some questions as to Ted Turner who owns a large ranch on the colo NM border..ted raises Buffalo and is working to bring back the black footed ferret who is on the verge of extinction. Most welfare ranchers out west usually only actually own a small ranch parcell and the bulk of the acreage they use are public lands..I was unaware that Ted also had BLM leases with his ranch..Ted is pretty cantankerous and difficult. I had rescued 11 stallions and 21 mares from the adobe town herd at canon city while the rest of them went to Tom Davis the slaughter buyer..I had intended to go thru Jane Fonda to see if I could get Ted to consider allowing them freedom on his ranch, as she seems to be the 1 person he might listen to-I found somewhere to release them to and never followed this idea to its end

  15. Johnnie Carol Evans // March 25, 2015 at 10:47 pm // Reply

    This Is conieving CRIMINALS–ITS Cheating /Stealing/and taking from Wildlife–Cows are not wildlife –THE people that let this happen to these Wild horses Are the Same As Rich Cattlemen –I wonder who’s pockets are being lined –They ALL need to Be in JAIL-& Thats IT !!!WHY don’t they FLY helicopters and scare the cattle to death like they do HORSES???I do not want Cattle on My TAX PART>>>

  16. These farmers should be made to buy there own land for there cattle. We as the tax payers we should have a right to stop grazing rights to cattle farmers. They are selling their beef to other countries at hugh profits, which I feel should not be allowed by any American company. Our taxes are paying for that privilege. This country is do corrupt.

  17. Jeannie Martinico // March 25, 2015 at 11:53 pm // Reply

    I am so fed up with the ranchers and other special interests who are endangering our wild horses and other animals to satisfy their greed. I would be interested in knowing some more names of the wealthy ranchers, at least the top ten most recognizable. Could you please provide them.

  18. Jeannie Martinico // March 26, 2015 at 12:00 am // Reply

    Never mind I just found the information I wanted and had missed previously. Thanks for exposing the names. I know many people thing these welfare ranchers are from small, down and out family ranches. Maybe this revelation will cause some to take action.

  19. Thank you for the information in a very well written article. Facts speak for themselves, the rich get richer and the mustangs go to slaughter. Welfare cattlemen should be forced to remove their livestock from the land set aside for the mustangs as the law is written. We boycott beef.

  20. Todd Wilkinson // March 26, 2015 at 2:29 am // Reply

    I’ve been a national environmental journalist for nearly 30 years and frankly I’m disappointed with Vickery Eckhoff’s lazy, sloppy reporting. It’s clear that with her so-called presentation of facts, she doesn’t know buffalo chips about Ted Turner.

    I do: I wrote a book about him following half a decade of research and subjecting him to relentless scrutiny. The book is titled “Last Stand: Ted Turner’s Quest to Save a Troubled Planet” and perhaps Ms. Eckhoff should read it.

    Note to Vickery: “Internet research” is not true investigative research.

    Am curious about where you got the data justifying the aspersions intending to lump Turner in, apparently, with the likes of the Koch Brothers, Simplot, Barrick Gold? How much do you, “based in New York City”, actually know what Turner is doing in the West? It’s a cheap shot and you know it. Turner isn’t a perfect human being and doesn’t claim to me but judge him by his stewardship on US soil and show me a single private landowner who’s done more for protection of wildlife.

    Vickery writes: “Ted Turner: He’s the second largest U.S. land owner (2 million acres in 6 states), is estimated to hold grazing leases in MT and NM (estimated at as much as 300,000 acres), and owns the world’s largest bison herd. Forbes ranked him #296 on its 2014 list of the 400 Richest Americans and #818 on its global Billionaires list (net worth: $ 2.2 billion.”

    Where did you get the figure of him holding 300,000 acres of active public land grazing leases or are you just re-quoting inaccurate info floating around on the internet?

    I just got off the phone with Turner’s general manager and he too wonders where the figure came from? As per other kinds of typical subsidies, Turner is means tested out of receiving most of them.

    Regarding his legacy as a wildlife steward, it’s true that he has more than 50,000 bison and it’s also true that he has contributed many animals to help start public herds. He’s put a conservation easement on several of his ranches and plans to permanently protect all of them in perpetuity as part of his estate planning when he dies.

    He provides safe harbor to wolves and grizzlies, has grown his prairie dog population (a keystone species benefitting 200 different species) from 10,000 to a quarter million, has underwritten much of the cost of safeguarding westslope and Rio Grande cutthroat trout restoration projects, restored thousands of miles of riparian waterway corridors that were previously impacted negatively by cattle, provides habitat for imperiled red-cockaded woodpeckers (a model of the US Fish & Wildlife Service’s Safe Harbor program for endangered and threatened species), Chiricahua leopard frogs, Bolson and gopher tortoises, and in addition, gladly provides habitat for thousands of public elk, moose, mule deer, pronghorn, cougars, swift fox, wolverine, lynx, bobcat, coyotes, eagles, hawks, herons, cranes, passerines, reptiles, amphibians, native plants, etc. etc. etc.

    Again, Turner isn’t perfect, but if Turner’s counted among your poster children for those who plunder nature, we’re all in trouble and it only demonstrates how out of touch you are with reality.

    • Thanks for writing, Mr. Wilkinson. I’m not sure why you would disparage online research. All major information, peer-reviewed studies, books, articles, photography and data on the costs and consequences of public lands ranching are available online, as were the Forbes rankings and the land survey I used to write this piece and the others in my (now) four-part series on public lands ranching. So, too, was the contact information of all the people and groups I interviewed over the last year to come up with the list of billionaires (and millionaires) with grazing allotments. The article clearly states how I got their estimated acreage (in addition to the others on the list). Other than a discrepancy over how many (which you didn’t state) grazing allotments Ted Turner has, is there some reason why he does not belong on this list of public lands ranchers relying on public assistance?

  21. Kymberly Haas // March 26, 2015 at 7:11 am // Reply

    WASHINGTON MONEY GO ROUND. SEEMS THE GUILTY PARTIES ARE DEFENDING THEMSELVES. ..ADMITS GUILT.

  22. Another excellent piece Vickery. We need to get this out to national headlines.

  23. Mark Kossler // March 26, 2015 at 2:52 pm // Reply

    Vickery:

    I recently became aware of your publication on public land ranching. Anyone who buys large acreages of land in the west will – by default – inherit some public land grazing allotments. The issue then may be what is done with them? Are they used traditionally by grazing livestock to the maximum that federal control may allow or will the owner forego grazing rights acquired by the purchase of the allotment? More specifically, once an owner has “user” control of an allotment, it can (in step with federal authorities) then control how it is used – including forgoing any grazing by livestock. In our portfolio, we have given up the “grazing right” use on the majority of the allotments that we inherited with our ranch purchases. The few grazing allotments that we have maintained are for very specific reasons (which may be to maintain a degree of use control on federal land inside our boundaries).

    As for fact checking, this can be an arduous and sticky issue. The federal grazing allotment acres listed with a ranch purchase and the federal acres maintained and used by the new owner down the stretch may be vastly different things. We have maintained “grazing privileges” on a small minority of the federal allotment acreages we inherited with our ranch purchases. The overwhelming majority have been given up to wildlife and recreational uses. To state that we receive grazing subsidies on 300K acres of public lands is, simply put, a gross misstatement of fact. Should you wish to learn the more, I would be glad to visit with you further about this.

    Mark Kossler
    General Manager
    Turner Enterprises Western Properties

  24. Well said Vickers!

  25. Connie Gammon // March 27, 2015 at 12:16 am // Reply

    Vickery, Thank you sincerely for your struggles, may many more become aware because of them.

  26. Susan Humphrey // March 27, 2015 at 2:42 am // Reply

    Its high time the Federal land run by the BLM was turned over to the States. Nevada is 84% Federally owned. If the Eastern states had 84% of their land owned by, “Collective Americans” it wouldn’t go over very well, and it isn’t going to last with the Western states, either. It is past-due for those lands to be turned over to their respective States.
    The BLM feral horse problem is a mess. There are 50,000 excess horses in leased midwestern pastures and in corrals that NO ONE WANTS TO ADOPT. They need to be given to the wild horse advocates to take care of…if they will take them, that is. Otherwise, they would make excellent dog or cat food. The Western rangelands are overrun with feral horses that are procreating at 20% per year, have no predators and are costing taxpayers $77 Million per year to care for. (These aren’t Native Wildlife…they are stray domestic horses that have bred “on their own” for several generations, BTW. They are the EXACT SAME SPECIES as Thoroughbreds, Arabians, Clydesdales and Shetland Ponies…they are just hybrid mixed-breeds)
    Only 2,000 BLM mustangs are getting adopted a year, so horse lovers, you can adopt one for $125. They need homes and the corrals need cleared because the rangeland is overrun with them and need more gathered, and the holding corrals are full!
    Unlike managed cattle, horses are on the range 365 days a year. They eat the new spring grasses before it has a chance to store energy into their root system. Too much grazing kills perennial plants; weeds and cheatgrass grow in their place.
    Cattle can be kept off land that is overgrazed. Livestock are only allowed on BLM leased range when there is grass to support them. They are turned out and gathered up as dictated by contract. (Hefty fine, otherwise)

  27. Kymberly Haas // March 27, 2015 at 7:01 am // Reply

    LMAO, stupidity

  28. Patricia Austin // April 2, 2015 at 7:03 pm // Reply

    Thank you for the article. It will be interesting to hear more from Mr Kossler, or perhaps not. There was another article circulating that I thought would be interesting to get your feedback on. It speaks to the issue of grass grazing rancher as well.
    http://www.opednews.com/Quicklink/Factory-Farm-Meat-Why-Veg-in-Best_Web_OpEds-Factory-Farms_Farm-Subsidies_Farming_Ranchers-150402-928.html

  29. praying for you Vickery, and for those rich, selfish men who think only
    about getting what they want, and have NO conscience or heart for the
    poor animals who have few of us who love them but have no monetary funds to
    “pay off” politians as these men do!! In the end the evil will get theirs
    and the GOOD will be saved.

  30. Laura Hall // May 22, 2015 at 12:39 pm // Reply

    Thank you for your work on the wild Horses on Public lands. Its great to have a advocate to watch over what all the rich people are doing with tax payer money. If you were to run for President I would vote for you! Good luck and keep up the great work!

3 Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Forbes Billionaires Top US Welfare Ranchers List | Habitat For Horses
  2. Forbes Billionaires Top US Welfare Ranchers List | GarryRogers Nature Conservation
  3. America’s billionaires among welfare ranchers | The Wildlife News

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