Letting cattle graze on federally managed land will cost more than 10 percent less for ranchers in 2017, and not everyone is happy with the reduced rates.

“The taxpayers are getting stuck with these artificially low rates,” said Erik Molvar, executive director of the Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit environmental conservation group based in Idaho.

The fee for grazing cattle on land managed by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service will be $1.87 for a cow and her calf in 2017, as announced by the bureau on Jan. 31. The fee, which is based off of public lands usage by one cow and her calf, one horse, or five sheep or goats for a month, represents an 11.3 percent decrease from 2016.

Tom Gorey, spokesman for the bureau, said the price varies from year to year, based on an index that factors in the price of beef and the cost of livestock production, among other elements. He added that the relatively low price of beef brought the fee down in 2017.

“If the (beef) market is doing well, you’re going to pay more,” Gorey said.

The index, which was created when Congress passed the Public Rangelands Improvement Act in 1978, peaked at $2.36 per month for a cow and her calf in 1980, according to numbers provided by the Bureau of Land Management. While the 2017 fee represents a significant drop from the previous year, Gorey said the 2016 figure was the highest monthly fee in 35 years.

For Molvar and other advocates, however, the issue is not the year-to-year fluctuations, but rather a system that provides a discount for grazing on public land relative to private land. Molvar said the monthly cost of grazing on public land — whether it’s set at $1.87 or $2.11 — is a small fraction of the cost of grazing on private land in the West.

“You can’t feed a hamster for $1.87 per month,” Molvar said.

The Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental conservation group based in Tucson, Arizona, published a study, titled “Costs and Consequences: The Real Price of Grazing on America’s Public Lands,” in 2015 to illustrate the growing gap between grazing on public and private lands. In 2013, the average monthly cost of nonirrigated private land in the Western United States was $20.10 per month for a calf and cow, nearly 15 times the price to graze on federally managed land that year, according to the study.

“The result of this growing gap between public land fees and private rates is that livestock operators on BLM and USFS lands pay significantly less than operators on nonirrigated private rangeland,” the study reads.

Molvar added that the this discrepancy is a problem because of the impact on grazing on public lands. He said cattle grazing can cause problems on public lands ranging from endangering native species to water pollution. Allowing cattle to graze at such a low price, he said, creates a de facto subsidy for the industry.

“I think this is a long-standing problem that federal agencies have been negligent in addressing,” Molvar said.

However, Doug Breese, owner of Pilot Butte Hereford Ranch, to the east of Prineville, said simple supply and demand plays a role as well. Even large ranches don’t have much acreage relative to government-managed land, and can charge a premium as a result. Breese said he lets other ranchers graze cattle on his ranch in exchange for labor, but said he has heard of private land in Oregon being rented for up to $40 per month for a calf and cow pair.

Breese added that he grazes his cows on Forest Service land once the winter ends, and considers the cost of grazing fees fair. In 2016, he paid $568 in fees.

“It’s not an impediment,” he said.

— Reporter: 541-617-7818, shamway@bendbulletin.com