Survival on the Range: Fundamental changes for Nevada ranchers
But that’s nothing compared to what the ranchers in Nevada are facing this year as the Bureau of Land Management institutes a strong-arm tactic to remove their livestock from the land. For background: Nevada consists of 84.5 percent federal land, managed by the BLM, which controls a total of 45 million acres in the state, divided into 745 grazing allotments serving ranchers. For many decades, the Nevada ranchers and the BLM worked pretty much in harmony as both sides sought to protect the rangeland from over-grazing.
Working together was the best way to accomplish this goal, because much of the land is intertwined. BLM land is often interspersed with deeded land; sometimes a map of an area will resemble a checkerboard of BLM and deeded land. Water flowing through an area may travel through both BLM and deeded land, and often a ranch will hold water rights which, by law, allow grazing access in proximity to the water, even while the water is on BLM land.
Ranchers have typically improved access to water by developing springs and ponds at their own expense, and in certain locales salt blocks have been set out to encourage more uniform grazing. Such efforts benefit wildlife as well as sheep and cattle.
The biggest ranches used to keep their livestock on the move, often for hundreds of miles beginning in spring. Chuck wagons and crews of buckaroos would tend to the livestock, branding and doctoring as the months went by, and the herds of livestock would arrive at the home place in the fall for sorting, shipping and wintering. This practice has been reduced to a much smaller scale in recent years as the BLM began to fence off various parts of the range.
Has the fencing helped with the propagation of grass?
“I know there was a lot more grass before the fencing,” said Jim Andrae, retired manager of the IL Ranch of Tuscarora, in a conversation with Mike Laughlin, a 78-year-old cowboy who is still horseback most every day tending to cattle. Mike is an old friend, and I’ll tell you there is no one better at sizing up a situation — “reading” horses, cattle and people — than Mike Laughlin. A person good at this kind of reading knows what a horse, a cow, or a person will do before they do it.
Andrae went on to explain that cattle tend to bunch up near a fence corner, and will overgraze that area, whereas the old way saw them move on, and on.
In recent years, Laughlin said, many ranchers in Nevada have been told their grazing permits have been greatly reduced, but this spring the numbers were cut even more drastically, sometimes down to no grazing at all on certain BLM parcels.
Three reasons were given: Ongoing recovery from drought, protection of the desert tortoise, and protection of the sage hen.
“It would be like you suddenly found out you couldn’t go anywhere with your Longhorns,” Mike explained. “Cattle numbers in this state are down by half what they were a couple years ago. People are forced to sell because they have no place to go with them.”
There was a glimmer of hope last year when Neil Kornze, a local boy who grew up in Elko, was named principal deputy director of the BLM. The ranchers figured there was finally someone in charge who would understand the challenges they face to stay in business. Then they found out Kornze had served as senior policy advisor to U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
“So,” Laughlin added, “Harry is callin’ the shots.”
Enter the Bundys
I was first alerted to the Bundy situation in a phone conversation with Mike on another topic. He mentioned the Cliven Bundy standoff, and I hadn’t heard anything at that point about the Nevada rancher who was at odds with the BLM because he hadn’t paid pasture fees and hadn’t removed his cattle from adjacent BLM acres.
“It’s a powder keg,” Laughlin said, “and someone’s liable to get shot before it’s over.”
The Bundy situation, as it turned out, is a small part of a much larger problem between ranchers and BLM people, and Laughlin gave me plenty of inside information, then directed me to other sources as well.
First, the Bundys: The family ranches near Bunkerville, outside Las Vegas in the southeast part of the state. Cliven has run his cattle on BLM land and hasn’t paid his grazing fees for 20 years, claiming the BLM doesn’t do a good job of managing and arbitrarily changed the rules on him long ago. He said he would gladly pay management fees to a county agency, but not the BLM. The BLM says he owes around $1 million in fees and fines, and this spring they set out to remove his cattle with a force of armed men and a helicopter.
The story finally gained some national attention when it was learned that some of Bundy’s cattle had been shot and buried in a sandy draw while others were being run by helicopter into a large pen constructed of portable panels under the watch of armed BLM law enforcement personnel.
The armed guards were met by armed friends of Cliven Bundy — along with hundreds of curious unarmed onlookers who wanted to see if there was really going to be a shooting range war.
Neil Kornze blinked, fortunately, the cattle were released, and the BLM forces retreated. Cliven Bundy won the battle, but he may lose the war. The FBI has entered the scene, investigating suspected white supremacy groups that came to Cliven’s aid. Cliven initially elicited sympathy from many folks who showed dismay at a large federal government threatening overwhelming force against one of it’s own citizens. But then Cliven went on to express some of his other views, which were deemed politically incorrect, and much of his support waned.
Still, Sherman Frederick of the Las Vegas Review-Journal had this to say about the conflict (April 16):
“The Bundy situation remains unresolved. The BLM and Kornze have fallen back into a bunker mentality (pardon the bad pun). It’s clear that Kornze lacks experience and judgment, and contrary to Sen. Reid’s assessment, Kornze is far from ‘perfect’ for this position.
“Kornze led a spectacularly botched roundup of ‘undocumented’ cattle in Bunkerville …. The bungled roundup, which almost came to gun play, rests entirely on Kornze. If (he) understands the role of the BLM when it comes to private ranchers, he didn’t show it last weekend.”
There is a distinct feeling that the folks who showed up during the standoff weren’t there so much in support of the Bundys, but were there because they disapproved of what the government was doing with an overwhelming show of force. And while writing this story, there was Associated Press news of “dozens of people who rode ATVs and motorcycles on an off-limits trail in southern Utah Saturday (May 10) in a protest against what the group calls the federal government’s overreaching control of public lands.”
The account said 40 to 50 people, many of them waving American flags and some carrying weapons, participated in the ride, and that hundreds attended a rally at a nearby park before the protest. About 30 deputies and a handful of BLM law enforcement personnel stood by and watched.
Meanwhile, back in Nevada, Pete Tomera, a rancher at Battle Mountain, posted an open letter on the Internet explaining his frustration with BLM personnel in his grazing district. The following are excerpts; the complete letter — and more — can be found by Googling Pete Tomera.
“My family and I have a ranch in the Battle Mountain area and graze our cattle in the Argenta Allotment,” Pete wrote. “The Argenta Allotment has approximately 350,000 acres, consisting of deeded, leased deeded and BLM lands. It ranges in elevation from 4,500 feet on the flat to 10,000 feet on Mount Lewis. Our BLM grazing license is 56 percent federal and 44 percent deeded. We either own or lease most of the deeded lands in the Argenta Allotment.
“We also have over 100 vested water rights on all the surface water in the Argenta Allotment, some of it dating back to 1862. We have made several large water improvements, both irrigation and stock water on our deeded lands. The BLM has not allowed any water improvements to be made on federal land, although we have repeatedly tried to have some approved to keep the cattle scattered and off the creek bottoms.”
Pete shares the allotment with neighboring ranchers, and went on to accuse BLM District Manager Doug Furtado of trying to “use neighbors against each other” by allowing some to graze in portions of the allotment that had been promised to others, and by using evidence of range damage that was “manipulated to make the range look worse than it is.”
“I once told Doug Furtado that the state water rights laws gives us the right to water our cattle on the range using our vested rights, and he said the BLM is federal and doesn’t recognize state laws. I also told him that Nevada is a fence-out state and he again said they don’t recognize state laws.”
Last year, in compliance with another BLM order, Tomera put up a 16-mile fence at a cost of $80,000. He also told of he and his neighbors riding each day to keep their cattle “out of trouble” with the BLM.
“I would not be complaining if there were no feed on the mountain,” he concluded, “but there is good feed there. I believe the BLM should make a greater effort to help the ranchers get through this difficult drought and still survive.”
Tomera invited state and federal legislators to his ranch in May to look at range conditions firsthand.
However, when ranchers point to good grass growth on a range, they see good grazing. The BLM counters that such growth is still in recovery.
Mike Laughlin, meanwhile, is horseback these days in the Ruby Mountains near Elko, tending to cattle. The grass where he rides and throughout most of Nevada is shaping up to what may be exceptionally good this year.
“So much of the grass in Nevada is cheat grass,” he said, “which is OK if you graze it off early in the spring, while it’s green. Sheep and cattle do that, and then go on to other forage when the cheat grass is grazed off. But if something doesn’t eat all that cheat grass early on, it turns into a fire hazard. We can get 40 lightning strikes in a single thunderstorm, and the range will be on fire. I’ve seen it.”
The BLM knows this, too, he added, and has a lot of firefighting equipment scattered around various areas. This knowledge hasn’t altered their stance on grazing restrictions, however.
In a blog dated May 6, Thomas Mitchell wrote: “What is doubly disturbing about the BLM kicking cattle off the range is that the grass will continue to grow and in the hot summer months will become kindling for wildfires that decimate the very creatures the BLM claims to protect — sage grouse, desert tortoises, deer, elk, rabbits, foxes, etc. — roughly three critters for every acre burned.”
Well, there have always been people who believe that “the end justifies the means,” especially if the end result suits them. After all, wildlife species have survived wild fires for eons prior to being “managed.” But a home ranch without access to adequate grazing — or even its own water — isn’t worth a lot of money. If the livestock disappear, so will the ranchers, along with whatever water rights they have.
There is speculation: Nevada is booming in the subsidized solar energy “business” — which requires a lot of water. Water needs are increasing for Las Vegas, too; Lake Mead is at low ebb.
Whatever is going on is a big change, a fundamental change in Nevada.
“What we’re seeing,” Laughlin said, “is the last stand of a horseback society. I’ve seen it all in my lifetime, from the open range days to what looks like the end of a closed society that made its living horseback in the ranching business.
“But I’ll tell you one thing,” he added. “These old ranchers won’t go quietly.”
Randy Witte is a former publisher of Western Horseman Magazine.