Once, in the Land of the Free, even big herds of cattle roamed freely about, restricted only by cowboys. Grazing on land that belonged to nobody, these beasts did no-one any harm, or so they thought.
There was a problem with the cattle and the sheep, however. There was lots of it. In the early 1880s, over 7 million animals were grazing on the Great Plains. The herds were driven from place to place, from one emptied plate to the next. At the same time, local farmers were struggling to make a living. As more people and animals tried to survive on the land, competition grew, along with aggression. Fences were raised and cut much in the same way the grass grew and was eaten. In the long run, neither ecosystem nor human society would be able to take the strain.
The situation turned really ugly with the Dust Bowl drought in the early 1930s. The fertile top soil turned into dust and flew into the sky. Farms went bankrupt and people had to leave. Popular opinion swung in favour of some form of regulation, and in 1934, President Roosevelt signed the Taylor Grazing Act.
The purpose of the bill, suggested by Senators Taylor from Wyoming and Isaacs from Idaho, was "to stop injury to the public grazing lands by preventing overgrazing and soil deterioration; to provide for their orderly use, improvement and development; to stabilize the livestock industry dependent upon the public range."
It did so by creating grazing districts in which only a certain amount of animals could graze. To obtain a lease for such a district, a fee had to be paid to the Secretary of the Interior. Local landowners, settlers or owners of water rights were to be given preference. If these failed to use the land in a responsible way, however, the lease could be taken away from them. Also, the land could be withdrawn from grazing if the Secretary found more valuable use for it. It could also reduce the number of animals permitted to graze if it found the land was becoming depleted.
The management of land was first carried out by the Grazing Service and the General Land Office, then taken over in 1946 by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) which controls the federal public lands to this day.
The Taylor Grazing Act was welcomed by many livestock owners when it was implemented, because they realised that the free grazing had been unsustainable. However, as environmental concerns grew stronger and grazing rights kept decreasing, ranchers felt they were being treated unfairly. In 1995, they sued the Secretary of the Interior because of a new set of restrictive regulations which they
saw as the beginning of the end of grazing on public land. After they won on some counts in a federal court, the Supreme Court ruled the regulations in accordance with the Taylor Grazing Act.