Feds lower grazing fees for ranchers

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Local ranchers will be paying less this year to graze their cattle and sheep on lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service. The Federal grazing fee for western public lands will be $1.56 per animal unit month (AUM) in 2006, down from $1.79 in 2005.

One AUM is the amount of forage needed to sustain one cow and her calf, one horse, or five sheep or goats for one month.

The fee is determined every year by a congressional formula that takes into consideration the current rates of grazing on private land, beef cattle prices, and the current cost of livestock production.

One of the primary reasons for the price decrease is the higher gas prices at the pump and their effect on the cost of raising livestock, said Dave Blackstun of the BLM's Little Snake office.

Local rancher John Raft--op--oulos thinks that any grazing savings will be offset by the increase in fuel prices. Raftopoulos grazes between eight and 10,000 sheep on his ranch north of Craig.

"BLM permits are essential to ranching operations in Northwest Colorado," Raftopoulos said.

The Bureau of Land Management oversees 18,000 grazing permits and leases, compared to 8,000 administered by the Forest Service. Locally, the bureau issues 83 permits and 140 leases for grazing.

Permits are often for smaller land parcels that are not accessible by road, and leases are given to the large areas of land managed by the bureau. Each lease and permit is carefully monitored by the bureau, with the number of animals and the time allowed for grazing specified.

Blackstun said the number of permits has remained steady throughout the years, with cattle outnumbering sheep interests in Northwest Colorado, which can be attributed to a greater demand for beef across America.

Grazing permit rates have traditionally been controversial, Blackstun said, because many people think that prices should be higher for private grazing on public lands. The Bureau originally acquired the land because of the poor quality and lack of public interest, Blackstun said. The land often has no water, fencing or other improvements.

The Bureau of Land Manage--ment was established in 1934 by combining the federal Land Office and the Grazing Service, and the formula for calculating grazing fees was established by Congress in 1978. Fees cannot fall below $1.35 per animal unit month, nor can they increase or decrease more than 25 percent from the previous year.

Raftopoulos has had permits to graze on public lands since 1934 and understands that the real expense comes in acquiring the permits from early settlers and original homesteaders.

"Local ranchers have a great spirit of cooperation," he said.

Money generated by the grazing fees goes to the U.S. Treasury, with one-half being returned to local, county and state governments and to the bureau. Much of the BLM share goes back to range improvement projects.

Dan Olsen can be reached at 824-7031, ext. 208, or dolsen@craigdailypress.com.

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