By Thomas Mitchell

There is no doubt the lingering drought is devastating the cattle business across Nevada, but some ranchers say the problem is being exacerbated by inflexible federal land agencies.

Though the Nevada drought monitor shows 100 percent of the state under some level of drought, unchanged from a year ago, rainfall in specific locales across central Nevada have been near normal for the first months of this year.

“It is my perception they are using the drought to kick ranchers off the BLM (Bureau of Land Management),” said John Colby of the Santa Fe and Ferguson Ranch near Eureka. “Out in the open that makes the best beef there is. It’s the highest quality known. It’s a lot better for them than raising in a corral. Here in central Nevada they’re using the drought as a vehicle to kick people off. The drought is a localized thing, because it can rain like crazy and two miles down the road they don’t get a drop. You can’t say we’re all in a drought, because I think we’re above normal with our moisture right now.”

J.J. Goicoechea — veterinarian, rancher, chairman of Eureka County Commission and past president of the Nevada Cattlemen’s Association — also said rainfall had been near normal in the first two months of the year, though soil moisture was drying out in March.

“Foragewise we’re going to be OK, stock water is going to be short. The national press and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration continue to talk about this ongoing drought in the West,” Goicoechea said, “so the BLM has grabbed onto that. … Of course, that is what they base everything on, the BLM. That’s one of my problems, we’re not doing a lot of on the ground stuff anymore.”

The Department of Interior preaches adaptive management of the land but its agencies do not practice it, he said, but noted that the Elko district is more flexible than the Battle Mountain district.

Goicoechea explained that under the adaptive management approach the rancher and a BLM official would look at the range and work together. “We’ll change our number, we’ll change our turnout date, depending upon what the climate is doing. Is it wet? Is it hot? Is it dry? Did we have early green up? Late green up? That’s adaptive management, being flexible.”

He said the BLM is telling ranchers when and where to graze with no flexibility built into the permit and then telling the rancher they overgrazed.

Colby complained the BLM is using the drought, sage hens and wild horses as excuses to remove cattle and sheep from the range.

“Really a rancher is an environmentalist, because that is how we make our living, we raise cows,” Colby said. “You don’t want to tear it apart. They’re being pretty unfair around here. They’re kicking everyone off, pretty much for no reason. Everybody has taken cuts, voluntary cuts, because it was a dry year. I took cuts without them telling me I had to.”

He noted that these are family ranchers who are having a hard time supporting their families. He said he has cattle out on the range now but he was told it might be only for a month. He said he is down about 1,500 AUMs (animal unit month) and because it was so dry he didn’t graze any sheep this past year.

“In these dry years we don’t have to be told,” he said. “We don’t want to put more things out there if there isn’t feed for them. This year I kept no heifers.”

Goicoechea estimates Nevada has lost half of its breeding cows over the past three years — approaching 300,000, down from more than a million in the 1980s.

He said Nevada needs to break the sue-and-settle cycle in which radical environmental groups demand protection of various species of plants or animals and get the federal agencies to agree.

“We’re on a bubble right now. If we get this reversed and we get some moisture and we get what we need to get a green up, some of these guys can survive,” Giocoechea said. “They can bring their cattle back and see over the next couple of years a rebuild. If they liquidate and go away that next generation isn’t going to be there to fill their shoes. … The next 12 months will be critical to the livestock industry in the state of Nevada, and that will dictate whether we’re here in 10 years or not.”

Other ranchers and the BLM agent designated to discuss this topic did not return calls.

Thomas Mitchell is a longtime Nevada newspaper columnist. You may share your views with him by emailing Read additional musings on his blog at