RENO, Nev. — The federal grazing fee will stay at the minimum allowable level for a seventh consecutive year, a development that has rekindled a longstanding debate in the West between conservationists and ranchers.

U.S. Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service officials last month said the fee of $1.35 per animal unit month, or AUM, will remain in effect this year for ranchers who hold about 26,000 grazing permits on public lands in more than a dozen Western states.

The formula used to determine the grazing fee, set by Congress in 1978, is based on market conditions, including private grazing lease rates, beef cattle prices and the cost of livestock production. An AUM is the amount of forage a cow and her calf can eat in one month.

Katie Fite, biodiversity director of the Western Watersheds Project based in Hailey, Idaho, said the fee is unrealistically low because it's set by an outdated formula that allows ranchers to pay far less than they would for grazing on private land.

The fee falls short of covering government costs to manage grazing, she said, and taxpayers end up footing the bill for killing predators of livestock, for spraying weeds spread by livestock and for sagebrush- and tree-removal projects to create more grass for cattle and sheep.

According to a Government Accountability Office report in 2005, grazing fees generated less than one-sixth of the expenditures needed by the government to manage grazing on public lands in 2004.

"It represents another huge form of subsidy to public lands ranchers who are already massively subsidized by us all," Fite said. "This also brings up a whole other cost of the public lands grazing program — the cost of water lost, fouled, wildlife habitat lost, etc. due to grazing."

J.J. Goicoechea, president of the Nevada Cattlemen's Association, said conservationists fail to take into account that rancher-funded improvements for pipelines, water troughs and fences also benefit wildlife.

Ranchers already are struggling because of drought and wildfires across the West, he said, and they play an important role in rural economies. Studies show each AUM has an overall economic impact of more than $75, he added.

"Aside from providing for water and increased habitat on private and public land, federal land grazing helps fund our local schools and municipalities," Goicoechea said. "Without federal land grazing permits, the stable private property ranch tax base would cease to exist. It is better for wildlife and our environment that open, green spaces, native meadows and rural private property are not subdivided and commercially developed."

BLM officials said the grazing fee formula was designed to support ranching in the West, not to recover the government's expenditures or capture the fair market value of forage. The fee can't drop below $1.35 per AUM under a 1986 executive order.