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Monday, August 25, 2014

Battle Mountain ranchers hope for BLM reversal

by Theodora Dowling, WLJ Correspondent

Three Northern Nevada families with grazing rights on a range managed by the Bureau of Land Management are hoping for the reversal of BLM actions that are on track to put them out of the ranching business. Due to the agency’s drought policy and what the families are calling BLM’s “mockery” of both science and due process, the families are being forced off their summer range. On Saturday, Aug. 16, the Tomera, Filippini and Mariluch families held a public tour of the range they have grazed for five generations. Some 70 elected officials and members of the general public attended the tour, held on what BLM refers to as the “Argenta Allotment.” There, a professional range consultant demonstrated that feed is widely abundant on the range and that BLM had violated its agreement with the families in issuing the grazing closure.

The forced removal of the cattle from their summer range is part of a larger story surrounding BLM’s drought policy in Nevada, said affected rancher, Pete Tomera. He said the agency is selectively enforcing the policy to make it “as damaging as possible.”

In an interview with WLJ, Tomera explained that the policy, which has been adopted in various forms in every BLM district in Nevada, misuses range research to call for excessive cuts to grazing during drought periods. On top of that, he said, his district (the Battle Mountain District) has chosen not to allow any of the mitigation measures, such as fencing of sensitive areas, which could allow the cattle to stay on the range longer. BLM has even violated the grazing “agreement” the ranching families had signed with BLM in May, Tomera said.

“We signed an ‘agreement’ because we were out of feed, even though the ‘agreement’ was really, really tough, with very low allowable utilization levels,” said Tomera. “Now BLM has used its own version of ‘monitoring’ to make it look like we’ve tripped the utilization triggers before we have. We’ve been forced off even sooner than we thought. Our normal off date is mid-November. They’re shutting down 92,000 acres, and about 50,000 acres of it is our own deeded land.”

Bob Schweigert, the Professional Range Consultant hired by the families to work with BLM in order to verify the agency’s monitoring techniques and data, said BLM had, indeed, violated their agreement with the ranchers. He said the agency’s flawed monitoring had come up with results that could not be duplicated by his firm, Intermountain Range Consultants (IRC). One problem, as Schweigert explained in detail on the Aug. 16 range tour, was that BLM had applied the wrong monitoring method to inappropriate areas. Also, he said, they monitored several sites that the ranchers and IRC did not agree upon and that were not representative of the range as a whole. Furthermore, BLM did not inform the families of the monitoring locations in early June, per the agreement, but instead only informed them on the date BLM started collecting data, according to Schweigert. BLM also conducted some monitoring without the families or their range consultants present, and at locations even beyond those where the agency said it would monitor. This was in violation of the grazing agreement. According to Schweigert, the eight riparian areas monitored by BLM add up to less than one acre, yet BLM is forcing the removal of cattle from 92,000 acres of uplands. “Most of it, the agency itself said had been grazed ‘slight to none,’” said Schweigert.

When queried by WLJ, the BLM Nevada state office stated it “supports the Battle Mountain District’s efforts to manage grazing during drought, including the use of cooperative monitoring and moving cattle...” However, neither the families nor their range consultants at IRC agree that the monitoring that was performed was done “cooperatively”—despite their best efforts.

On July 25, shortly after the district issued a letter giving the families seven days to remove their cattle, the families’ legal counsel sent a response letter. In it, they contended that BLM lacked the authority to remove the cattle from the area in question. The letter asserted that BLM had breached the agreement with the families with their monitoring methods; that the “claimed ‘monitoring’” did not show that the drought triggers had in fact been reached; and that, in keeping with BLM’s own drought policy, the families should be allowed to use fencing to protect the “sensitive areas” in question. The families have filed a motion with an administrative law judge (ALJ) in hopes that he will direct BLM to allow fencing of those areas—versus complete non-use of their summer and fall range.

In addition to appealing to the ALJ, the families will soon meet with U.S. Representative Mark Amodei (R- NV) to discuss their concerns.

“Congressman Amodei has been very responsive and helpful,” said Tomera. “We hope to talk about some possible solutions with him.”

Amodei has publicly stated concern that this dispute could be precedent-setting and have dire implications for all ranchers. Similarly, the Nevada Cattlemen’s Association stated “NCA fears that the current cattle removal situation faced on the Argenta allotments and the procedures or lack thereof has far reaching implications and potential impacts to other federal lands grazing permittees in the state.”

Speaking to that danger, Eddyann Filippini, another affected rancher, said, “We hope to draw public attention to the fact that this model—where BLM can set arbitrary standards for us to live by, and then cook the numbers to make us ‘violate’ those standards—is not working.”

Filippini said in September she would be joining a group known as the “Cowboy Express” that would ride all the way to Washington, D.C., to try to bring attention to their story (see: www.grassmarchcowboyexpress.com.) “In particular, we’re going to carry a petition calling for the ousting of the Battle Mountain District Manager Doug Furtado, who has been heading up this terrible policy,” said Filippini.

But, Filippini added, the Cowboy Express riders will be carrying a bigger message, too.

“If this kind of thing can happen in Battle Mountain, why couldn’t it happen in any BLM district, westwide? Every citizen and every level of government should be concerned about this,” said Filippini. “We are getting great representation by our county governments, Rep. Amodei, and some of our state elected officials (although we haven’t heard much out of Governor Sandoval). Our story was even included in testimony by Elko County Commissioner Grant Gerber in a U.S. congressional hearing last month. It’s getting quite a bit of attention, as well it should.”

As of press time, the ALJ has remanded the original decision back to BLM, and the families have filed formal written applications to fence the minute sensitive areas, so as to allow them to remain on the range. Meanwhile, they are holding many of their cattle on deeded ground, trying to make feed last until a decision is made—in their favor, they hope. — Theodora Dowling, WLJ Correspondent

 
 


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