By Thomas Mitchell
While Bunkerville rancher Cliven Bundy was grabbing national headlines with an armed confrontation with agents from the Bureau of Land Management, dozens of other ranchers across Nevada have been quietly wrestling with decisions by BLM agents that are jeopardizing their very livelihoods.
The BLM has been demanding reductions in the number of cattle allowed to graze on public range land, often using rationale that seem arbitrary, capricious and arguably without sound scientific support.
Eureka area rancher Kevin Borba, for example, said he called the Ely and Battle Mountain offices of the BLM to make sure what his allotments would be before he purchased his ranch in 2012. He said he was assured the AUMs (animal units per month) would remain the same — 415 head on one allotment and about 500 on another.
With those assurances, the lifelong cattleman from California purchased his 330,000-acre ranch and named it the Borba Land and Cattle Co.
He was getting ready to turn out cattle this past fall when the federal government was shutdown by a budget impasse. He was told by a BLM official he could put his cattle on the allotment but there would be no paperwork done until the shutdown ended.
“A couple days later the office opened, the government’s back on, and I get a call from them,” Borba recalls. “‘You didn’t turn out them cattle did you?’
“I go, ‘No, in fact, as we speak I’m throwing them hay.’ …”
“’You can’t turn out the 415.’”
He was told he could only turn out 140 head on his Little Smokey Valley-Duckwater allotment.
He has hired a lawyer and is appealing to the U.S. Department of the Interior, Office of Hearing and Appeals.
He also hired a range specialist from Winnemucca who looked at his vegetation and declared he could easily graze more than 415 head. He said the range specialist knew far more about the plants and their nutrition value than his then-assigned range con. (Some ranchers joke that “con” is short for conservationist or con man.)
“My number is 415 head of cattle. Now, if the feeding isn’t there, I don’t want skinny cows, I’ll run less cattle,” Borba said. “But if I sign that paper and reduce it to 140, and then next year comes around, ‘You know your permit is for 140 but I think you could run 20.’ They’ll never give us the numbers back. … I’ll run 140, but I just want to keep the 415 that the permit says.”
Borba said he was later told by the BLM he also could graze sheep. “I’m not in the sheep business. I don’t want no sheep.”
Oddly enough, Borba said that when he first got to Nevada he was called by a prominent sheepherder who asked if he could buy his allotment. Borba declined. During the conversation the man told him, “Listen, your allotment, you can only run 140 head of cattle and the remainder should be sheep.”
Though what the BLM was telling him matched precisely what the sheepherder told him, the BLM officials denied any collusion.
Several ranchers in the area were planning to meet this week to discuss their options, said Jim Baumann, vice chairman of one of the local grazing boards. He said ranchers are told to cut their AUMs because of drought, sage grouse and wild horses. Baumann thought it odd that the BLM could issue a $1 million contract to remove Bundy’s cattle but claims they can’t afford to roundup the wild horses that are overgrazing the range.
Borba said the herd management area on his ranch calls for 78 wild horses but a recent helicopter survey counted at least 1,600. “They tell me, ‘Write your congressman because it goes higher up than us. Yes, we agree there are too many horses.’”
Baumann also noted that sage grouse populations actually increased after the introduction of cattle.
A notice inviting ranchers to this week’s meeting said, “As ranchers we have faced and survived severe weather and fires and other challenges provided by Mother Nature. Every day we face these challenges and meet them head on. Now, we face an increasing kind of challenge which we are not having much success with. This problem and increasing threat is the heavy handed policies and bureaucracy of BLM and certain BLM employees that seem intent on putting ranches out of business.”
Appealing BLM decisions is expensive, Baumann said, noting the grazing board is funded by a portion of grazing fees, which are, of course, decreasing as fewer cattle are allowed on the range.
Thomas Mitchell is a longtime Nevada newspaper columnist. You may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read additional musings on his blog at http://4thst8.wordpress.com/.