Content written by Phil Taylor, E&E reporter
Amid extreme drought, the Bureau of Land Management last week closed about 50,000 acres of Nevada rangelands to livestock grazing, drawing protests from ranchers who say they have few other options to feed their animals.
BLM last month said drought and grazing impacts on the Argenta allotment in northern Nevada had surpassed “triggers” set in a May agreement with ranchers, which requires closures or partial closures on nine areas of the 332,000-acre allotment.
The decision has frayed an already sour relationship between ranchers in north-central Nevada and BLM, which must manage the lands for a variety of uses, including grazing, greater sage grouse and wild horses.
“We’re concerned and we’re watching this situation,” said Ron Torell, president of the Nevada Cattlemen’s Association.
The closures come months after Elko County Commissioner Grant Gerber led a “grass march” on horseback across northern Nevada to Carson City to call for the removal of BLM’s Battle Mountain District Manager Doug Furtado, whom ranchers see as unconcerned for their livelihoods (Greenwire, May 27).
It also comes months after BLM’s high-profile standoff with Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who has allowed his cows to graze illegally on BLM lands at Gold Butte for decades.
In the Bundy controversy, cows were competing with the federally threatened desert tortoise.
In a similar vein, cows and sheep on the Argenta allotment share arid rangelands with the greater sage grouse, which is a candidate for Endangered Species Act protections.
About 81 percent of the public lands within the allotment closure areas is preliminary proposed habitat for sage grouse, which means it contains habitat important for the bird’s breeding, brood rearing and wintering.
But two years of drought have resulted in less forage and water for livestock and wildlife, BLM said.
As of mid-August, 87 percent of Nevada was experiencing severe, extreme or exceptional drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, BLM said. The Argenta allotment was in its third consecutive year of “severe and extreme” drought, with 100 percent of the area in the “extreme” drought category since June 2013, the monitor said.
Under BLM’s “full force and effect” decision issued Friday, seven areas totaling 52,014 acres will be closed to cattle and sheep grazing for the duration of the drought, plus one growing season after the drought ceases, as determined by the Drought Monitor. That puts 6,617 animal unit months (AUMs) off limits to cows or sheep. An AUM is the amount of forage needed to feed a cow and her calf for one month.
On two additional sections of the allotment, grazing will be closed for the duration of the drought plus one growing season. But grazing will be allowed for two months in the spring when invasive cheatgrass is green, BLM said.
Across Nevada, ranchers already have voluntarily agreed to forgo roughly 440,000 AUMs in 2014, which is a more than 20 percent reduction from total AUMs, BLM said. They’ve accepted livestock adjustments, grazing rotations, water hauling or rest of pastures.
“Many ranchers across the state are undergoing hardships due to the effects of this prolonged drought,” said a statement by BLM Nevada State Director Amy Lueders. “We will continue to work cooperatively to ensure the long-term health of the rangelands.”
But BLM’s Argenta decision is complicated by the fact that the affected lands are in a checkerboard of public and private ownership, with BLM managing about 142,000 acres of the 332,000-acre allotment. The land is steep and rugged and lacks fences, so there’s no easy way for ranchers to keep cows strictly on the private lands.
“This is one of the most difficult things about this allotment,” said Erica Haspiel-Szlosek, a spokeswoman in BLM’s state office. “We’re well aware that the practical effect [of the closures] does affect private acres.”
Torell, of the cattlemen’s group, said ranchers in the region have fewer alternatives to public lands to feed their animals, such as access to byproduct feeds like corn stocks, hay stubble and beans.
“You can move cows to private country, but you’re going to utilize all your fall feed and maybe winter,” he said.
Pete Tomera, who is the largest permittee on the allotment, said the triggers BLM set in its agreement with ranchers — which were based on the height of vegetation — were “unrealistic.”
He said monitoring conducted by a range consultant he had hired differed from BLM’s findings.
“There’s no question of the abundance of feed,” Tomera said. “I do not want a ‘full force and effect’ [decision] on us, because it will break you.”
Tomera said ranchers across the West planned to participate next month in a “cowboy express” ride from the Pacific Ocean to Washington, D.C., to protest “illegal deals” at BLM and to continue to call for Furtado’s ouster.
BLM first asked for livestock to be removed from the nine allotment areas July 23, giving ranchers seven days to remove the animals. But two days later, the ranchers sent a letter to BLM protesting the terms and conditions in the May grazing agreement and disputing the monitoring results.
They suggested less onerous alternatives to removal, including the installation of temporary electric fences and intensified herding. BLM said those options could not be implemented quickly enough to address the drought conditions.
An order this month from an Interior Department administrative law judge, James Heffernan, said BLM’s monitoring had confirmed emergency drought conditions and that the allotment had to be protected without delay.
On Aug. 7, BLM observed 326 cattle still grazing in eight of the nine areas where drought triggers had been reached.
It is unclear how many cattle remain on the closed areas. Tomera said he has taken out “a lot of cattle” but the situation is now “in the hands of lawyers.”
The ranchers may appeal Heffernan’s ruling, BLM said.