The armed standoff at Bundy Ranch in southern Nevada in 2013 reignited a long-running debate over ranching on public lands. Cliven Bundy's refusal to pay fees for cattle grazing rallied those who felt that large holdings of federal land were smothering economic opportunity in the West – in Nevada, for example, nearly 85 percent of the land is owned by parts of the federal government.
A powerful and enduring symbol of the American West, rangeland cattle grazing has nonetheless been shrinking for many years, with the amount of livestock on federal lands dropping by more than half since the 1950s. Nevada has been hit particularly hard, declining nearly 75 percent from its modern peak in 1954.
But is federal policy to blame for the decline of western ranchers? With the support of a Western Enterprise Media Fellowship from the Bill Lane Center, the journalist Tay Wiles set out to understand what is ailing cattle ranching. To this end, Wiles and her colleagues gathered 50 years of grazing data from the Bureau of Land Management and the United States Forest Service, some of which had never been digitized before. In the resulting story for High Country News, Wiles writes,
“One of the prime drivers of the 45-year-old Sagebrush Rebellion, the movement to take control of public lands from the federal government, is the sense that rural western ranchers are bullied by forces beyond their control. That narrative remains compelling, in part because it’s true.”
— Tay Wiles
In looking for forces behind ranching's decline, Wiles finds more to blame than environmental regulations (the most widely criticized federal policy), all of which have contributed to a "perfect storm" buffeting ranchers: the switch to polyester yarn after World War II, which depressed demand for wool; the growing use of feedlots to raise cattle, which lowered the cost of beef and cut ranchers' operating margins; private conservation organizations that bought and retired grazing lands; advances in rangeland science, which set limits of how much livestock arid landscapes could support; and in many areas, urban growth – Bundy's ranch in Southern Nevada ranch is situated in the same county as fast-growing Las Vegas.
If those factors haven't been hard enough for ranchers to endure, prolonged droughts have added more hardship, Wiles writes, forcing ranchers "to sell off animals that their allotments can no longer support."
The full report contains a number of maps and data visualizations tracing the changing fortunes of western cattle ranching.