Second Grass Tour Questions BLM science

Rex Steninger, courtesy of the Elko Daily Free Press,

August 20, 2014

Lander County ranchers and their range consultant conducted a second Grass Tour of the Argenta Allotment last Saturday to show those attending the areas used by the Bureau of Land Management as monitoring sites to justify the closing of summer grazing areas surrounding Mount Lewis.

Bob Schweigert of Intermountain Range Consultants in Winnemucca told the crowd of around 60 interested citizens, state and local elected officials and neighboring ranchers that the BLM had failed to follow its own protocols, skewed its data and offered information in a way to confuse the issues in its effort to remove cattle from the rangeland.

“The threshold question, before addressing the science, is that the BLM is implementing the Drought Environmental Assessment and Management Plan without ever having exposed it to an appealable Record of Decision. That’s a violation of BLM’s own policies,” Schweigert told the crowd.

“Secondly, you can’t follow the science and get to BLM’s position,” Schweigert added.

To begin with, Schweigert charged, this is not a drought year, so none of the BLM’s drought responses should apply. He explained the National Weather Service Office reported precipitation levels in Battle Mountain last spring stood at 85 percent of normal, while the Society for Range Management defines a drought as a prolonged period when precipitation is less than 75 percent of normal.

“Also, the vegetation production data collected by IRC in supports the fact that the uplands are producing within the normal range,” Schweigert said.

Secondly, the BLM has not abided by its obligations agreed to in the grazing licenses signed last May by the ranchers and BLM. The BLM failed to review monitoring sites with the ranchers as called for in the May agreement or provide adequate notice of its monitoring efforts. The BLM also did not consult with the ranchers before issuing its order to remove the cattle, which is a direct violation of the protocol listed in its own Drought Environmental Assessment.

Additionally, the BLM has used a collection method that surveys only the “most sensitive area of the most sensitive areas,” Schweigert said, to skew data to the disadvantage of the ranchers. “What was supposed to be used,” he explained, “was the Stubble Height Method, which should be employed on the entire stream reach.” As an example, he said the Stubble Height Method along the creek measured grass height of 6.8 inches, where the BLM method of measuring only the most sensitive area came up with a height of 2.9 inches.

He added the BLM method used only a 110 meter long by one meter wide area. That procedure monitored only five-hundredths of an acre along each site and Battle Mountain District Manager Doug Furtado used the data collected from those minuscule areas to order cattle off nearly 92,000 acres of the allotment.

Furthermore, the area closed by Furtado lies within the railroad corridor, where alternating sections are privately owned. That means the BLM’s July 23 order forced the ranchers to remove cattle from 50,000 acres of their own private property.

And finally, Schweigert charged, BLM has used language in communications with Administrative Law Judge James H. Heffernan that deliberately attempts to cloud the truth. He said that in communications with the court, the ranchers explained that dewatering efforts by a mine in Slaven Canyon were slowing the flow from a spring there. BLM responded to the court that there was no mine on public land in Slaven Canyon. Schweigert said the BLM statement is factually true, since the mine is on private property immediately adjacent to the spring, but contends the statement was intended to imply to the court that there was no mine at all in the canyon.

In another example, in communications with the court, the BLM refers to the road along Mill Creek as merely “an old mine road,” when in fact it is a 60-foot-wide, active haul road used by a neighboring mine.

Former Nevada Assemblyman John Carpenter of Elko opened Saturday’s event and called attention to a guest editorial critical of the ranchers’ fight with the BLM in a recent edition of the Elko Daily Free Press authored by Katie Fite, who described herself as an employee of Western Watersheds Project, a notorious anti-ranching environmental group.

“Damn them!” Carpenter declared.

“I didn’t see any of their members out here this spring when the BLM demanded that 16 miles of fence be built to protect the rangeland. And none of them were around over the past several generations when our ancestors were here developing water systems and building fences to benefit all wildlife, not just their cows,” Carpenter continued.

Carpenter explained Western Watersheds is not really an environmental organization interested in protecting the rangeland or its wildlife. Rather, he said, it is a political group focused solely on removing ranchers and their livestock from public lands.

To prove his point, Carpenter recounted that while he was serving in the Nevada Legislature in 1993, Western Watersheds accompanied much of its propaganda with the catchy slogan, “Cattle free by ’93.”

“Well, I answered them with my own slogan,” Carpenter continued, “Cattle galore by ’94.”

He said Western Watersheds has been attacking ranchers for more than 20 years and he has yet to see them do one productive thing for the range or its wildlife.

Rancher Pete Tomera agreed, “This current dispute is another example of the group’s destructive nature. If anyone was really concerned about the condition of the range, would they be asking us to move our cattle off the mountain, where there is lots of feed and water, down to the flats that were already grazed off this spring, while we were waiting for Furtado to back off his February ruling closing the summer pastures.”

Dorothy Steninger of Lamoille commented, it was hard to pick out what the WWP’s employee described as an “elite clique of highly subsidized cattlemen” among the weathered faces and well-worn jeans of those attending the tour.

Carpenter introduced Dick Smith of Ruby Valley, who said he was there to offer the ranchers the support of the Shoshone Indians. He said Mount Lewis is home of a special plant that the Indians use for many medicinal purposes and offered swigs of the spiritual juice to both Carpenter and Tomera. He said the Indians worried that without grazing, the plant was threatened by the inevitable range fires.

Tomera also told the crowd the BLM had just inspected the mountain with an aerial flight and informed him that they had counted 273 cows still out on the mountain. Tomera quipped that he replied that the ranchers should be congratulated for doing such a good job. He explained they were licensed to run 2,114 cows on the nearly 100,000 acres of the steep, rugged Mount Lewis summer pasture, and to get all but 273 cows off in such a short time was a remarkable effort.

Before setting off on the tour, Tomera asked those in attendance to pay close attention to the country they were driving through and ask themselves, “Is this being overgrazed, or over-governed.”

The tour was then taken to three separate monitoring sites that were among those used by the BLM to close the summer pasture around Mount Lewis and all three of the sites were flawed in one way or another, Schweigert explained.

The first stop was along Mill Creek, where the site selected for monitoring was a stretch of about 100 yards, where the overflow from a spring trickled along the 60-foot wide haul road. Schweigert explained the site did not meet the BLM’s own criteria for a monitoring site because it was a spring flow, not a stream bed, and the flow was confined by the haul road on one side and steep terrain on the other.

Tomera added the BLM’s own drought regulations state “temporary electric fencing could be used to exclude livestock from critical areas.”

“He (Furtado) didn’t have to order our cows off the mountain,” Tomera explained. “He could have just asked us to put up a little temporary fencing. It would have been a drop in the bucket compared to the 16 miles of permanent fencing he required us to build last spring.”

Many of those on the tour also signed up as volunteers to come help the ranchers build the fence, if that option were to become available.

On the second stop of the tour along Ferris Creek, Ruby Valley rancher Cliff Gardner cautioned that fencing off riparian areas could be counter-productive, since that practice has proven to damage sage grouse habitat and the bird was facing a listing as an endangered species.

He said livestock grazing is critical to the sagehen’s survival. He explained cattle graze off the tall grasses and that lets the small, fine clovers and forbs receive sunlight and grow. Gardner said predator control is the most important element in restoring historic sage grouse populations, but those small green plants also are critical to the sagehen’s survival. He cited the Sheldon Wildlife Refuge in northwest Nevada and the Ruby Marsh Wildlife Refuge in Elko County as examples of what happens when livestock is removed. With the accumulation of dead grass and the annual regrowth of tall grass, no sunlight reaches the ground where the forbs grow.

“We’re missing a bet here,” Gardner concluded. “If all of us educate ourselves better and understand the benefits of livestock on the ranges, we should be taking the fight to them.”

Tomera and Schweigert conceded that Gardner was correct, but explained that the areas they were talking about were very small and there were many nearby riparian areas on private land that would continue to be grazed. They also explained they would rather not fence the riparian areas either, but that option was better than removing the cattle completely.

The final stop on the tour was Slaven Canyon, where Schweigert pointed out the barite mine owned by Baker-Hughes that Furtado contended did not exist “on public land.”

The group then returned to Battle Mountain for a barbecue prepared at the Cowboy Camp, a protest area erected across the highway from the BLM office. The camp is equipped with tents, wagons and signage calling for Furtado’s ouster from office. Organizers of the protest vow to keep the camp open until Furtado is gone.

A Grass March/Cowboy Express also is being planned for late September to deliver petitions seeking Furtado’s ouster to Washington, D.C. Katie Jones is serving as coordinator of the event and those interested in participating or making a donation can contact her at 925-640-1102. She has also established a website at