Forage is the foundation of the beef industry. Consequently, any event that impacts forage supplies is critical to analyzing the industry’s well-being – drought being one of those.
In 2011 and 2012, we saw the impact of two major back-to-back droughts on the beef industry. The herd liquidation that ensued pushed the U.S. cattle inventory to a 60-year low. While drought in the southern Plains is currently part of the analysis with regard to cow slaughter, it is not yet as critical as those previous years.
Another factor that critically impacts forage supplies and often much more, is wildfires. Whether started by lightning or humans, the impact of wildfires on ranchers grazing cattle on federal lands in the Western U.S. can be significant or even devastating to the operation. This is particularly true when federal lands account for a significant share of the operation’s grazing.
For a summer grazing federal permit, this can amount to 50% of the ranch’s total grazing demand. A fire that burns the allotment could, and likely will, restrict the use of all or part of that summer grazing permit for up to three years. I have calculated the costs for ranches who have lost grazing due to grazing restrictions following a fire. Obviously, it is significant.
In 2017, there were 71,499 wildfires in the U.S. that covered 10,125,149 acres with 13% of those fires representing 62% of the total acres on Forest Service and BLM administered land. Western states with significant federal grazing accounted for 33% of the total fires. Federal dollars spent in 2017 to suppress (government speak) or as we say, to fight fires in 2017, reached a record $2.9 billion.
In 1985, when the Interagency Fire Center started collecting this data through situation reports, there were 82,591 wildland fires encompassing 2,896,147 acres at a suppression cost of $240 million. That is a notable difference compared to 2017! And, here is another eye opening statistic – in 2006, there were 96,385 fires (record) encompassing 9,873,745 acres at a suppression cost of $1.7 billion.
There are no doubt more wildfires burning more acres at a significantly higher suppression cost to the U.S. taxpayer. So, the question is - what has happened? There are several factors, but one is significant, and no it’s not global warming but rather - fuel load (forage and timber). Managing this fuel load in order to reduce the extent of the fire once it starts is simply a matter of grazing management and logging management.
The Department of Interior announced recently new fire suppression initiatives using grazing management as a means to reduce the magnitude, both in acres and cost, of wildfires in the West. It’s a decision that has been a long time coming for ranchers in the West and one that many ranchers have petitioned, promoted, urged, or lobbied the BLM to incorporate into their grazing management. In addition, the topic of wildfire suppression is quickly drawn into the much discussed topic of sage grouse habitat and the Environmental Species Act.
At the end of the day, federal lands grazing is not a fire suppression cost, it is a benefit to the resource, the ranching industry, and last but not least, the taxpayer and consumer.