Livestock industry faces uncertainty.


Mar 11, 2001
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Livestock industry faces uncertainty.

Jeff Mullin - Elko Daily Free Press

ELKO - Do you know where your hamburger comes from?

Nevada's cattlemen will hold their annual convention in Elko to discuss a nationwide marketing strategy to label beef grown in the U.S.A.

Ranching, like any other industry, finds itself at the mercy of economic forces.

Disease and other economic pressures decimated the state's sheep industry and by 1999, cattle production was threatened enough that the state legislature commissioned an $80,000 study to analyze grazing trends.

It concluded the state lost around $25 million over the past 19 years because of reductions in grazing ordered by federal agencies. Nearly half a million "animal unit months" (AUMs), the standard measure of livestock grazing, were eliminated. That's a reduction of about 16 percent.

Livestock operators in Elko County alone lost around $1 million, the report said. Losses were greater in other parts of the state, especially central and southern Nevada.

The consultants from Resource Concepts Inc. of Carson City said, "It is important to realize that grazing of rangelands is a manageable activity. It is the controlled harvest of a renewable, sustainable resource."

That may have been what the state wanted to hear, but louder voices have been coming from other fronts.

A growing number of scientists claim long-term cattle grazing is to blame for problems with the sagebrush "ecosystem." They point to the decimation of sage grouse populations as evidence the range is "sick" and needs to be healed. Environmental activists held a conference in Arizona over the weekend calling for a permanent end to public lands ranching.

Scientific opinions on the issue are almost as varied as the number of species of sagebrush. Some studies have even indicated that all-out trampling of the landscape by cattle is the best way to stimulate new growth on barren land.

Fighting authority

If a rancher feels he is a victim of bad science, his only recourse is to appeal the decision in court. That can add up to expensive legal fees and consultant fees, but some ranchers go to the expense and take the risk in order to preserve their livelihoods.

And sometimes fighting back pays off.

In 1994, the BLM ordered a 50 percent reduction in grazing on the Filippini family ranch in Lander County, along with other restrictions. Hank Filippini and his son-in-law, Bert Paris, protested the cutbacks and a judge ruled the BLM's cuts were "unreasonable and without rational basis."

The decision depended upon the testimony of range consultants who poked holes in the BLM's data-handling methods. An appeals board cited the consultants' "meticulous dissection" of the BLM's evidence in denying the appeal.

"Junk science has no place in public land management," declared Filippini after the final decision.

"The victory finally puts to rest an erroneous claim by the BLM, especially throughout Nevada, that it can manipulate utilization information to drive reductions in public land grazing," he added.

Rather than fight, most ranchers try to get along with their federal partners. They don't talk openly about problems out of fear they will be targeted for tighter restrictions.

Nye County rancher Wayne Hage claimed he was targeted after writing a book titled "Storm Over Rangelands," which asserted ranchers have some private property rights attached to their allotments under a "split estate."

Former Elko County Commissioner Tony Lesperance said ranchers who depend on public land for grazing have no choice but to get along with the federal agencies.

"If they start to become vocal or do anything else, then all sorts of things happen to them. So I think they've got to comply."

He believes the vast majority of ranchers in Nevada are doing a very good job.

"The problem is they can't graze the areas they'd like to graze anymore," he said.

Rebels and rustlers

Some ranchers get fed up with the agencies and stop paying fees. This summer the BLM cracked down on two of those ranchers, Ben Colvin and Jack Vogt in Esmeralda County. The agency seized their cattle and warned other violators that more seizures were coming.

Bob Abbey, state director for the BLM, was quoted in an Associated Press article calling the men "trespassers" and saying they were "jeopardizing the future of grazing on public lands." That remark drew criticism from U.S. Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev., who responded that "threats made about future grazing in Nevada are not helpful and will not be tolerated."

In an interview last week, Abbey said trespassing notices issued by the agency this summer will be enforced, even though no cattle seizures have taken place since the two in July.

"We're going to end up rounding up all of the cattle that are trespassing on public lands," Abbey said. "We're seeking voluntary compliance, but those operators who are not going to comply, they will have impoundments."

The two alleged violators in northeastern Nevada were both American Indian tribes. One, the Te-Moak Livestock Association, pulled its cows off the BLM allotment. But the Dann sisters in Crescent Valley still have theirs out and face a possible roundup. The sisters, Mary and Carrie, reportedly have 1,500 cows and horses on the range.

The confiscations have resulted in legal battles and accusations that the BLM was "rustling" cattle. A new cattlemen's association was formed under the leadership of Mineral County rancher David Holmgren.

Another rancher who isn't afraid to defy the BLM is Julian Smith, an attorney who lives in Carson City and owns a ranch there as well as the Rafter Diamond in Elko County.

Smith, who had an agreement to purchase Vogt's impounded cows, said he thought the BLM seizure was part of a plan to get cattle off the range permanently. Cattle had been using the Vogt allotment year-round for a hundred years, he said. At one time the ranch was owned by Art Linkletter, and Smith said the celebrity was never hassled by the BLM about cutting back his grazing schedule.

"You talk to any range scientist and he'll tell you that the best way to maintain the vitality of a range is to have grazing - not overgrazing and not undergrazing, but good, controlled grazing," said Smith.

"I just want to be treated fairly," Smith said. "I want science to prevail in managing the range. If they will rely on the available science, it will tell them that the best way to manage that range is to use grazing."

A place for cattle

To some extent, the BLM agrees.

"What we've found is that prescriptive grazing, which means you move them in during certain times of the year, then move them out, can be as much of a plus as it can be a hindrance," said Abbey.

Elko Field Office Manager Helen Hankins said the technique has been used on a limited basis in the past, such as at the Deloyd Satterthwaite ranch at Tuscarora and on the TS ranch.

"After the first of the year we are going to bring in four or five ranchers and NDOW (Nevada Division of Wildlife) and our staff, and we're going to look at this question of using livestock as a tool to reduce fuels in the springtime," Hankins said.

"You get 'em in there and knock back that cheatgrass, but you need to remove the livestock before the perennial grasses start coming in like the crested wheat, or the blue bunchgrasses or the Great Basin rye," Hankins said.

Using cattle to consume the cheatgrass also would help prevent large range fires.

Joe Guild, president of the Nevada Cattlemen's Association, said livestock grazing is a valuable range management tool that is being underused in many places.

"If we had more livestock grazing out there we'd have less fuel load," Guild said.

Lesperance said he has looked over much of northern Nevada's fire-scarred landscape and not as much scorched land has been successfully reclaimed as the BLM says.

"It's years and years of mismanagement that built this situation up," he said.

But a number of environmental groups want the government to ban cattle grazing. They have devised a plan to buy out grazing permits when they come up for renewal. RangeNet held its annual meeting last weekend and discussed the plan with groups such as the National Public Lands Grazing Campaign and Western Watersheds Project Inc.

Range war

"There is a contingent of environmentalists that think cattle grazing is evil," Smith said, and they are behind the BLM's push to get cows off the range.

Lesperance agreed.

"The decline in range conditions in northern Nevada and surrounding areas of the Great Basin has definitely not been due to livestock grazing," he said.

Lesperance believes it is because of "pseudo-environmental input" by groups whose real agenda is to get livestock off the range - period.

The BLM tries to manage the land, he said, but the agency claims its hands are tied by the court system when environmentalists, wildlife groups and wild horse enthusiasts file lawsuits.

They complain that ranchers pay a paltry amount for grazing permits, comparing the $1.35 per AUM to market values without considering other factors.

The economics of ranching in the high desert are very uncertain, according to livestock specialist Ron Torell of the University of Nevada, Reno, extension office.

"With our cost of production, it's very tough to compete with those producers in the Midwest where they have 20- and 30-inch precip zones," Torell said.

Besides the drought, Torell said the biggest threats faced by ranchers include potential Endangered Species Act listings such as the sage grouse, and other efforts to get ranchers off the range.

"Without a doubt, the federal lands deal is No. 1. That's a big question mark," he said.

A rancher's private land isn't worth much without the federal grazing permit to go along with it, he said. And the grazing land isn't worth much without the ranches.

Sagebrush Rebellion

Some think the problems faced by Nevada ranchers today would be solved if the state took control of the land within its borders. That was the goal of the Sagebrush Rebellion movement 20 years ago.

One of the key players was Tuscarora rancher and Nevada Assemblyman Dean Rhoads, who is now a state senator.

But these days Rhoads says the sovereignty statute he worked so hard to pass had "constitutional difficulties." A new effort was launched this year by the Nevada Committee for Full Statehood, but Rhoads said the group is doomed to failure for the same reason.

Its members, however, believe the Constitution is on their side.

"The only way the federal government has any rights to any land within the boundaries of any state is according to Article 1, Paragraph 8, Clause 17, which states that the United States government may acquire lands needed for forts, docks, arsenals and other needful buildings, and the cession of these lands needs to be approved by the state legislature," explained O.Q. "Chris" Johnson of Elko, the statehood group's chairman.

"The Nevada State Legislature has never approved of the BLM or the Forest Service managing lands in the State of Nevada."

He said when Boulder Dam was built, the federal government came to Nevada and asked for the land needed to create Lake Mead. And in the 1940s they wanted land for the Nevada Test Site and again came to the state legislature to ask for the lands to be ceded, and it did so.

"Somebody in the federal government knows that these lands belong to the State of Nevada, otherwise they wouldn't come here and ask for permission to use them," Johnson said.

City support

Ironically, the current statehood movement is getting its strongest support not from ranchers but from city folk in southern Nevada. Some residents of Las Vegas see the movement as a way to block the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository. Members of the Nevada Committee for Full Statehood were backed by southern Nevada lawmakers this year when they tried to get their bill through the legislature.

They plan to try again next time.

Meanwhile, ranchers will do their best to cope with the drought and a nagging uncertainty about their future.

"It's never been a real profitable business,"Torell said. The rate of return is much lower than most business ventures, despite the common criticism that ranching is profitable.

"The reason so many people stay in it is because it's a terrific way of life - or it has been until this point in time," Torell said.

"But there are some people bailing out because the quality of life has deteriorated. You spend all your time fighting in the courts, fighting bureaucrats. There comes a point when things are not fun anymore, and we're approaching that point."

Environmental groups with deep pockets are lining up to relieve ranchers of their burden. And once ranchers are out of the way, the groups plan to continue pushing.

Western Watersheds Project, based in Hailey, Idaho, and run by activist Jon Marvel, says it has "embarked on a 10-year effort to end public lands ranching as the first of several incompatible uses of public lands."

That would mean an end not only to the traditional Western lifestyle - perhaps America's greatest trademark across the globe - but also other resource industries necessary for a healthy economy.

The environmentalists' proposed grazing permit buy-outs are a battle line drawn in the sand. Now it is up to the rest of America to choose which side they want to support, because the result of that battle could change the face of the West as we know it.

jerry d

Well-known member
Mar 17, 2001
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When compared to cost incurred with raising cattle on private land, the grazing permits would seem to be a profitable benefit to ranchers.

However, after reading the opinions of the various players involved, IMO, if grazing is strictly regulated to eliminate overgrazing and damage to riparian areas then grazing could be beneficial to our rangelands as a means of preventing and controlling wildfires. We certainly don't appear to have the necessary amount of wildlife to do the job.

Could one equate selective logging or controlled burns in our National Forest with grazing on rangelands as a means to eliminate or control devistating wildfires.

If grazing is eliminated will the rangelands become another "disaster waiting to happen" like some of our national forest.

Very interesting article.....

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