By Katie Fite / WildLands Defense
This article first appeared on Counterpunch
Featured Image: Virgin River with banks trampled like a feedlot by Cliven Bundy cattle. May 2015.
In Oregon, an armed occupation of Malheur Wildlife Refuge headquarters is being led by self-proclaimed “patriots” from Nevada. They are defending a public lands ranching family’s “right” to set fires and break the law.
In Nevada, Cliven Bundy owes more than a million dollars in grazing fees. An armed confrontation broke out when BLM began to impound his trespass livestock. The government backed down. For almost two years, no action has been taken while the Bundy camp becomes ever more brazen. This past summer, when Cliven Bundy went to the Nevada legislature to support a bill to turn over federal authority of public land to the state, he was treated to a barbecue by Nevada Congressman Mark Amodei.
Argenta Allotment Settlement
There has been prolonged, severe drought in Nevada. In 2014, defiant public lands ranchers resisted Battle Mountain BLM drought closures and cattle cuts in the Argenta allotment. They were emboldened by the Bundy incident. The ranchers set up a “Grass Camp,” aided by instigator Grant Gerber, across from the BLM office. They have waged an intimidation campaign against agency staff. They whined incessantly to cattle friendly Nevada politicians Amodei and Senator Heller. The Elko paper did not really report, but instead was a worshipful cheerleader against the BLM. The ranchers denied there even was a drought. At the very same time, they received lavish federal drought disaster relief payments.
The cattle damage became so severe that by late summer the local BLM finally closed the sensitive sage-grouse habitats in mountain pastures of the Shoshone Range to grazing. The ranchers and states rights politician John Carpenter appealed the protective closure. In spring 2015, an Interior Department Office of Hearings and Appeals administrative law judge finished review of a mountain of documents, and ruled in favor of the closure.
But within weeks, BLM folded. All of Argenta was again flung open to grazing. Leadership under Nevada BLM Director John Ruhs had forced a settlement deal indulging the ranchers’ every whim. Ruhs, bonded at the hip with the Cattlemen, had been “Acting” Director, and then officially became Nevada Director.
The deal was greased through by the “National Riparian Team,” composed of livestock industry sycophants from within BLM and the Forest Service, and outside cattle consultants.
The Team, while claiming to be a neutral party, immediately took the ranchers’ side – with Team members railing against perceived interference by the local BLM staff that had sought to control cattle damage to the public lands. So it’s no surprise the settlement flung open sensitive closed sage-grouse habitats to full bore grazing. Herds of several hundred cows were allowed to trample and devour “forage” across the drought-stricken public land in 2015.
The settlement put the Team in charge of a Coordinated Monitoring Group “(CMG”) dominated by ranchers and a token enviro group to take control of monitoring, to direct management actions, and run interference with the local BLM so the Argenta ranchers would not be accountable for grazing damage or trespass.
The cabal bars the public and press from observing their monitoring of grazing damage, and from their closed door discussions that dictate management. The group tells BLM what to do to keep the ranchers happy.
The result has been grazing chaos, and wanton damage of lands and waters. Wildlands Defense (WLD) and colleagues visited Argenta to observe and document conditions. Cattle were scattered all over the allotment, and riparian areas ravaged. When we asked BLM where cows were supposed to be present, the local BLM managers did not even know. All was in the hands of the Team and CMG.
Scads of new cattle projects are also laid out in the settlement. A July Team memo plans new barbed wire fencing and water projects incrementally sprawled across Argenta. The Team embraces injurious grazing practices – severe cattle trampling soil disturbance and high use of native grasses. Why the projects? So ranchers don’t have to work to control their cows. This frontloads Argenta with band-aid fences around prominent degraded areas (and long term monitoring sites) close to roads, prior to any thorough Land Health assessment. There never has been any grazing study since the 1976 passage of FLPMA. The ranchers can then claim conditions within the little fenced areas are “improving,” and insulate against cattle cuts in an assessment.
This fall, BLM obediently issued a Decision giving the ranchers six new permanent fences, plus “temporary” water troughs and a pipeline. WLD and Wild Horse Education appealed the first battery of projects, which are terrible for wildlife. Sage-grouse and other wildlife are killed by flying into or becoming entangled with wire. The projects also shift intensive impacts onto other areas. We also challenged the Ruhs Settlement – which has altered grazing, established the exclusive closed meetings, and directed the projects. BLM claims we can’t appeal the Settlement.
Now over the holidays, BLM proposed more projects. The ranchers, through the cover of the Team and CMG, are essentially now running the public lands.
North Buffalo Settlement
Days after BLM caved in Argenta, one of the very same permittees, Filippini Ranch, rewarded BLM appeasement efforts by unleashing their cattle on the nearby North Buffalo allotment. North Buffalo, like Argenta, was closed for drought protection. It is home to a very small struggling population of sage-grouse, whose habitat is also being consumed by foreign gold mines.
BLM could not help but notice the cows turned out illegally, since the ranch owner told about the trespass to the Elko newspaper, flaunting his power. Leadership under Ruhs promptly rewarded this trespass with another Settlement deal. Just as in Argenta, a North Buffalo Settlement flung open the closed lands. BLM charged Filippini around $100 for willful trespass – a small price for being allowed access to tens of thousands of dollars worth of public lands “forage” for which the permittees pay a pittance.
DeLong and Humboldt County Settlement
There is yet another Settlement deal gift to a powerful rancher, this time in Winnemucca BLM lands. The powerful Delong ranching operation and Humboldt County had sued BLM over a raft of access issues primarily involving cattle water projects, many in Wilderness areas with no access roads. The projects had not been recognized by BLM when compiling project lists following the passage of the Black Rock Wilderness legislation in 2000. The lawsuit involved arcane regulations originating in the 1800s and early 1900s. BLM issued a scoping letter this fall proposing to maintain, reconstruct and access 15 cattle projects, access private inholdings, and maintain irrigation ditches – mainly in the North Jackson, South Jackson and Black Rock Wilderness in the South Jackson allotment.
BLM did not tell the public in its confusing letter that the proposal was based on yet another recent Settlement deal. We only learned of this when querying the BLM staff.
Hold Your Wild Horses
BLM leadership has knowingly looked away from a series of purposeful and blatant violations of the Code of Federal Regulations by a rancher (Borba) in the Fish Creek wild horse Herd Management Area in Battle Mountain country.
The rancher was found to be in “willful trespass,” grazing his livestock outside the boundaries of his legally authorized use for eight months. Under pressure from politicians Heller and Amodei, the BLM reduced the trespass and lowered fees.
The rancher and Eureka County also became upset over a local BLM decision to manage wild horses to incrementally reduce the population. The BLM removed over 200 wild horses, and then planned to use the PZP fertility control drug, and release horses given fertility control back to the HMA. In a stand-off reminiscent of an old western movie, the county and rancher showed up onsite and demanded the BLM not release the horses.
The BLM caved, and the horses were hauled away. After a lengthy legal battle the horses were returned to the range months later.
The disgruntled rancher began a social media campaign to rile the public against “government abuse.” Claims were made that he was never in trespass. He videotaped himself repeatedly breaking the law, and put it on social media. The penalties for the acts committed clearly state that the permittee will face fines, possible jail time and “shall” lose the right to graze on public lands.
Ruhs met with the rancher, County and local BLM Manager Furtado at Fish Creek, and sided with cattleman over his own staff. The BLM state office has now put the brakes on the fertility control program for the Fish Creek wild horses. This winter, the permittee is grazing livestock as if nothing happened.
Is It Continued Bungling, Political Interference or Tacit Support?
Badly bungling the Bundy situation and failing to act for almost two years now, the BLM opened the floodgates of rancher defiance and Sagebrush Rebel hell. The Ruhs Settlement deals reward powerful public lands ranchers who hate the agency and the very concept of public good and public lands. Allowing violations of federal law to go unaddressed has created an environment where any concept of law appears meaningless. The Settlements in Argenta, North Buffalo, Jackson Mountain/DeLong, coupled with BLM leadership ignoring blatant Fish Creek rancher law-breaking, embolden the very parties who want to see the public lands become unmanageable by the federal government.
Safety of BLM employees on the ground has been jeopardized. The ranchers want removed anyone who might attempt to protect the environment. Their intimidation campaign is demanding Battle Mountain District Manager Doug Furtado be fired. The local office has been rendered powerless.
Appointment of Ruhs as Nevada Director, sweetheart settlement deals and toleration of overt law-breaking all have taken place under national BLM Director Neil Kornze, a native of Elko, Nevada and son of a mining engineer.
Is this ineptitude on the part of BLM leadership, political interference, or something else? Kornze increasingly appears to be either the most bungling BLM Director ever – or a fellow traveler with the Nevada public Land Grab crowd. While we continue to see PR photos of the BLM Director on outdoor excursions, important areas of the American West are being handed over to the welfare ranchers through a policy of capitulation and appeasement – resulting in a de facto loss of federal control and stealth Land Grab.