Peaceful protesters unite at Battle Mountain over NV BLM drought policy
A profusion of ATVs, pickups, tractors, horses and forked-legs gather together in a hotel parking lot in the outskirts of Battle Mountain, Nevada—population 3,635.
Moms and dads tighten cinches. A bunch of men argue with a team of white mules destined to pull a chuckwagon bearing the Nevada state flag. Finally, the chaos lines out into a procession through downtown Battle Mountain towards an empty lot across from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) district office. Little girls throw candy and wave from the backs of pickups and ATVs decked
with homemade signs that read, “Less Govt., More Cows,” “Wild Fires Kill!” “Feed cows not fires,” “Save the Ranches,” and the like. The headcount pulling into the empty lot is probably around 200, and between the horses, rigs and stiff wind, a veritable dust storm has mounted. Sack lunches donated by Winnemucca’s Martin Hotel are devoured, along with a healthy dose of dust. But a little dirt doesn’t faze the ralliers; they are there for a purpose. BLM actions are threatening local ranchers’ livelihoods and way of life, and the people of Battle Mountain are pushing back in peaceful protest.
The rally took place last week as part of a series of events organized with the help of Elko County commissioner Grant Gerber. Starting on Memorial Day, a group of riders made a days-long horseback trek from Elko to Carson City, where a petition was to be handed to the governor and state legislators. The petition, which will have covered over 300 miles on horseback— gathering signatures all the way— calls for the BLM’s Battle Mountain District Manager Doug Furtado to be relieved of his post. One reason the petition cites for Furta do’s removal is his attempt to reduce grazing in a way that “imperils tens of thousands of animals with wildfire” and harms local economies.
“We’re hoping people show up in Carson on Friday with stock trailers, horses and cowboy hats,” said rancher Eddyann Filippini, a participant in the Battle Mountain rally. Hers is one of the families affected by Furtado’s threats to close or significantly reduce grazing on the 340,000-acre Argenta allotment based on the agency’s two-year-old draft drought policy.
Yet, members of the public who attended a May 17 grass tour on the allotment have attested to the abundance of the grass there—and to the falsehood of Furtado’s claims that “rest” from grazing is in order. According to local ranchers, Furtado’s claims are consistent with his longheld anti-grazing views.
Removal of Furtado from his post may not be the silver bullet the families hope for, however. Last week in this paper, readers learned that the Filippinis, Tomeras, and Mariluch’s were refusing to sign an “agreement” offered them by the BLM that would have imperiled their ability to graze the Argenta next year, 2015, if this season, 2014, they were to surpass certain utilization levels.
The provisions of the proposed agreement were derived from a BLM drought policy document. This document, notably, has yet to be finalized—making its use by the agency legally questionable. The agreement based on this draft policy would have allowed no more than 30 percent utilization on upland areas, and no less than 4-inch stubble heights on riparian areas. The families had determined that those triggers would be too easily tripped, which would have meant no use of the Argenta for all of 2015.
As of last week, the families had determined it wasn’t worth the risk to sign the agreement—even though it stood between them and their only source of summer and fall feed. They brought a counter-offer to BLM that removed the 2015 reference, but it was rejected. Finally, the families told WLJ, they signed a short-term, twoweek agreement with BLM “out of desperation.”
“It wasn’t an easy decision,” Angie Mariluch told WLJ. “We have no hay for our cows and no place to go with them. Our cows are stressed out, pacing the fence. We’re doctoring sick calves born in the feed grounds in the dirt. We finally decided to sign the agreement.”
The two-week agreement signed by the family will be followed by a final BLM decision on how the allotment will be handled for the remainder of 2014. According to Shawn Mariluch, if BLM stays true to its word, the final decision will no longer contain language dictating how the allotment is to be managed next year. However, it is expected to still contain the 30 percent utilization and 4-inch stubble height requirements for this year, which the families say will have them off the allotment far before their normal fall dates.
Meanwhile, even the lowest-moisture monitoring sites on the Argenta indicate that feed is abundant on the allotment and normal grazing levels are justified, according to independent Range Consultant Bob Schweigert. Schweigert holds a Master’s degree in forest and range management with an emphasis in wildlife habitat management. He was the Winnemucca BLM Range Monitoring Specialist for four years before starting his own consulting firm, Intermountain Range Consultants.
“None of the BLM’s drought indicators have been met in either the vegetation or water availability categories on the allotment,” he told WLJ.
According to Schweigert, BLM’s withholding of the families’ grazing licenses this year violated the law. Normally, the families turn out in March. This year, it was late May before they received their two-week license, at the direction of the Washington BLM office.
“Each year, BLM has to grant you your license to graze, or they have to issue a decision based on your term permit. There’s no legal authority for them to withhold your license the way they have this spring,” said Schweigert. “True, BLM made the families offers on a grazing ‘agreement’—but that agreement’s terms were so onerous and out of keeping with the families’ term permits, it wasn’t a viable agreement. In my layman’s opinion, Battle Mountain BLM has effectively been illegally withholding their license. That’s why the BLM solicitor from the Washington office recently directed Battle Mountain to finally issue the families’ licenses—even if it was for just two weeks.”
Recently, Battle Mountain BLM claimed the agency “was doing everything possible to work with permittees to avoid temporary closure due to drought-related impacts.” But the affected families on the Argenta told WLJ they haven’t seen “communication, cooperation, or coordination” from BLM. They said their attempts to negotiate have fallen on deaf ears, and they were signing the two-week agreement under protest.
Shawn Mariluch told WLJ, “We finally signed an agreement, which means we’ve waived our right to appeal… It’s coercion. If (Furtado) is so willing to work with us, why would he make us sign an agreement that takes away our due process?” According to Schweigert, BLM wasn’t just mistaken in enforcing its stringent drought utilization standards on the lush Argenta allotment. The standards, he told WLJ, are scientifically unjustified even on truly drought-inflicted areas. For example, he said the research cited in BLM’s draft drought policy did not recommend the 30-percent utilization standard, heralded nonetheless by BLM.
“When you look at the literature review in the BLM drought document, none of the research recommends 30 percent utilization,” Schweigert said in a phone interview. “They all say that stocking rates may need to be reduced, but that moderate use—40 percent up to even 70 percent—is appropriate in most scenarios. To my knowledge, none of the sources say to rest the range for a year after the drought subsides, either. What BLM has done is cite some authors’ work, but only the parts they want to cite.”
Why hasn’t BLM’s misuse of its own scientific literature been overturned? Schweigert believes that it’s simply because the drought documents haven’t actually been finalized. As reported last week, BLM has called its drought policy just a “reference document” that can’t be appealed.
“It’s true—no decision record has been issued; thus nobody can challenge it,” Schweigert told WLJ. “They’ve created this document that’s now their bible for dry years, but they’re hiding behind the argument that it’s just ‘reference.’” Schweigert added that, while the drought documents in the various Nevada BLM districts had almost all undergone the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process, even that process had been done incorrectly.
“By law, the counties are to be allowed to participate in the development of policies like this. BLM’s plans should be consistent with county land use plans to the degree possible, yet that hasn’t been the case. The counties’ concerns with the socio-economic impacts of the draft drought policy and the lack of scientific basis need to be addressed.”
Schweigert questioned BLM’s implementation of a policy that has not been finalized. He said that one ranching family in the Winnemucca BLM district is appealing a decision to reduce grazing that reportedly was based on the draft policy.
“The administrative law judge could rule on whether use of the (draft drought document) was inappropriate, given that it was never finalized. The judge could also rule that BLM didn’t come to a rational conclusion in the draft policy, because their own sources actually call for moderate, not light use.”
The timeline for a hearing on the Winnemucca family’s appeal is yet to be determined, Schweigert said.
When asked whether the ruling could possibly be applied beyond just the Winnemucca family’s case, he responded that if it’s un favorable to BLM, they are likely to claim it doesn’t apply to their other grazing decisions across the district or state.
“But it would be good precedent for other ranchers to base their own appeals on,” said Schweigert. He also indicated that he thought a class-action lawsuit brought by ranchers against the agency was “a distinct possibility.”
While some ranchers may choose to follow the administrative and legal channels to fight BLM, there have been rumblings on the ground to respond with acts of “civil disobedience.” While no such actions have yet been reported, some are calling for ranchers to simply turn out their cattle without government permission—an inkind response to what they consider to be illegal actions by BLM. Whether Nevada ranchers choose the long and winding legal route, or choose to fight fire with fire by just turning out, one thing is certain: BLM’s actions are under public scrutiny once again. — Theodora Dowling, WLJ Correspondent