By Rex Steninger
Former owner and editor of the Elko Daily Free Press
Several Lander County ranching families are scrambling to survive after what they describe as the Battle Mountain Bureau of Land Management’s decision to close the Argenta Allotment, where the families have been grazing cattle for generations.
Battle Mountain BLM District Manager Doug Furtado counters that he has not made a formal decision to close the allotment, he has simply asked the ranchers to rest sensitive areas through the hot summer months to allow the range to recover from three years of extreme drought. He adds the Tomeras already have cattle in one field on the north end of the allotment and other areas will be available this fall.
But the effective closure of the majority of the allotment leaves the ranchers scrambling to find pasture for the critical summer months.
The Argenta Allotment, surrounding Mount Lewis south of Battle Mountain, encompasses 365,000 acres. It is bound roughly by the Austin highway on the west and the Crescent Valley highway on the east. The families of Pete Tomera, Paul Tomera, Dan Tomera, Hank Filippini, Dan Flippini, Billie Filippini, Jim Filippini, John Filippini and Shawn Mariluch hold grazing rights on the allotment.
The closure is the latest example of what the ranchers say is heavy-handed treatment by the BLM.
But Furtado takes exception to that characterization. “I’m trying to help these guys be successful, but these are extreme circumstances.”
Pete Tomera, who holds the majority of the grazing rights on the allotment, explains he has always cooperated with the BLM and takes pride in the fact he has never been cited by the federal agency for improper grazing practices. He also says he has cooperated with the BLM’s concern over the drought and voluntarily accepted a cut of 8,000 animal unit months (AUMs) last year and 11,000 AUMs this year. An AUM is the amount of forage consumed by a cow in a month. Over an eight month grazing period, the 11,000 AUMs would represent a reduction of 1,375 cows.
He added he currently has grazing rights for 24,000 AUMs within the Argenta Allotment, which reflects a 50 percent reduction imposed by the BLM in the 1960s. His acceptance of an 11,000 AUM reduction this year would have been a further 45 percent reduction in the carrying capacity of the range.
He says he could understand the closure if the allotment truly could not support his cows, but that is not the case. The last three months have brought much needed relief from the recent drought and the range is in good condition. He has invited anyone interested in inspecting the range for themselves to come out for a tour of the allotment on May 17.
But Furtado says, “They see green grass out there and all they see is forage for grazing. It is not forage, it is recovery.” He adds that he is charged with monitoring the range and implementing grazing reductions when he finds resource damage. He commended the ranchers for their concessions last year, but says those reductions were not effective in preventing damage. He said his agents have boxes of research documenting extensive degradation of the allotment.
The Tomeras answer that his documentation is purposely manipulated to make the range look worse than it really is. They add that they plan to hire their own expert to counter the BLM’s documentation.
In addition to the voluntary reductions in their AUMs, the Tomera family also agreed to a BLM recommendation that they build a 16-mile fence to separate the BLM controlled land from their private land. They hired a contractor to the tune of more than $80,000 and the fence was completed this spring.
Tomera and his wife, Lynn, then went in to the BLM office in March and had a three-hour meeting with a range conservationist to hammer out the final details of their grazing permit for this year on the Argenta Allotment. Tomera reports that even though the plan included the reduction of 11,000 AUMs, his family could live with it, and the range conservationist also seemed happy with the plan. He made the short drive home to his ranch, completed his afternoon chores and walked into his house around 5 p.m. to hear a message from the BLM that it had decided to close the allotment completely.
Tomera was dumbfounded, “I have worked hard my entire life to get along with the BLM and I have never been cited for trespass. But then one man with some sort of vendetta comes in and, with a snap of his fingers, he makes a decision that can ruin the lives of my family. It’s terrible.”
Director Furtado explains that the range conservationists that met with the Tomeras did not have the authority to make an agreement. “Staff cannot make management decisions. They don’t have the authority. They just make recommendations to management.”
Tomera has been selling cows all year to get down to numbers that would have satisfied his voluntary reduction in AUMs. “I have been sending out a semi load of cattle every other week,” the rancher said. But he still has 1,800 cows and their calves on his private pastures and they will be out of feed by June 1.
He said the Filippinis have found other pasture, but he can’t.
“What am I supposed to do? Sell all my cows? Then what? Sell the whole ranch?” he asked. “Who would buy a ranch that has been targeted by the BLM like this one has?”
Elko County Commissioner Grant Gerber, an attorney who specializes in such cases, says the Tomera family is caught in a horrible position. They were given no notice of the impending closure and have very little recourse. Gerber, who has represented the Tomeras in other legal matters, explains “They could file a lawsuit, but what good would that do? There would be no resolution to the lawsuit in time for this grazing season, and little hope for a positive resolution in the future. You would probably win one, or two, or three rounds, but they just keep coming back. You can’t afford to fight the government in court.”
Gerber also said he worries about wildfires and their toll on the allotment’s wildlife. “With all the rain we’ve had the last three months, those mountains will be a tinderbox if the grass is not grazed off. Think of all the sage grouse, deer and other animals that will be killed if that mountain burns.”