Ranchers should charge BLM for thirsty horses

By Thomas Mitchell

AUSTIN — One of the biggest problems facing Nevada ranchers all across the central swath of the state from the California to Utah borders is an overabundance of feral horses drinking water and eating forage rightfully set aside for cattle and sheep, but the bigger problem is the utter indifference of the Bureau of Land Management to this burgeoning problem.

For years the BLM rounded up mustangs and attempted to adopt them out, warehousing the unadoptable ones at Palomino Valley near Reno. It has reached the point that more than 60 percent of the BLM’s $70 million annual budget for managing wild horses and burros is consumed by warehousing them in corrals. The BLM claims it doesn’t have the budget to round up any more horses.

Ranchers attending a packed meeting at the Austin Community Center a couple of weeks ago heard an audacious suggestion that might bring the problem to a head.

The Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 states: “If wild free-roaming horses or burros stray from public lands onto privately owned land, the owners of such land may inform the nearest Federal marshal or agent of the Secretary (of the Interior), who shall arrange to have the animals removed.”

Mike Stremler emphasized to fellow ranchers in Austin that the language is “shall arrange to have the animals removed.” He said officials of Iron County, Utah, sent him a copy of an agreement the county has made with the BLM under which horses that wonder onto private land can be “water trapped,” or basically when the mustangs go into a fenced area to get at a private water source, the land owner can simply close the gate behind them. If the BLM doesn’t come and get the horses, the landowner could conceivably have them hauled to Palomino Valley and handed over.

Stremler described the plight of one rancher who was told by BLM that he could not turn out cattle on his allotment because it was overrun with 300 to 500 excess feral horses in the third year of a drought. He said the local sheriff is threatening to ship the horses to Palomino Valley. “Now, if all the counties did this and we flooded Palomino Valley with horses that sends a message back to Washington, D.C., that if you don’t deal with these issues we’re going to deal with them,” he said.

“In Pershing County I’ve been exhausting these administrative remedies,” Stremler said. “We got a preliminary order out or communication that says there is no available water for any other users, which means the wild horses have no water rights. When there was a fire I charged the BLM 5 cents a gallon to use my water coming off of public land. They paid it. That set a precedent that they are willing to pay for the water if they need it. One of the things we need to do as ranchers is set them up, if they’re going to use your water, send them a bill. And when the horses need to use your water, we can start sending them a bill.”

He noted that, if a rancher charged the BLM 10 cents a gallon for water, a wild horse could consume 20 gallons a day or $2 a day apiece for 1,000 head of wild horses. In 300 days the bill would be $600,000. Failure to pay would be a taking of private property under the Fifth Amendment.

“Iron County is leading,” the rancher said. “Iron County sent out a letter telling BLM if you’ve got money to gather (Bunkerville rancher Cliven) Bundy’s cattle, you’ve got money to gather these horses or we’re going to. That forced them into an agreement.”

But it is not just a matter of following the letter of the law.

Sparks Assemblyman Ira Hansen told the ranchers they need to cultivate positive public opinion about grazing and how it is beneficial to the land and wildlife. He noted there are 2.7 million people in Nevada and most live in Clark County, far from the open range.

Pershing County District Attorney Jim Shirley said there is a need to educate the public.

“Welfare ranchers is what they call you,” he said. “Once one of you goes down its like dominoes,” adding that ranchers need to form an entity to advocate for ranching just like any other special interest group. He said people need to be told how grazing reduces wildfire and the development of water resources creates an oasis in the desert.

Thomas Mitchell is a longtime Nevada newspaper columnist. You may share your views with him by emailing thomasmnv@yahoo.com. Read additional musings on his blog at http://4thst8.wordpress.com/.


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  1. It might not be obvious to city slickers why a rancher should charge the taxpayer for the water a wild horse drinks on PUBLIC land. Maybe there’s a good reason for such a payment, but it sounds absurd (so explain it already!). Also, it seems to be taken as obvious that a ranchers allotment of public land is his private property. This feeds the growing perception that ranchers in Nevada (and those who speak for them) have a pathological sense of entitlement. I’m not saying they do (I really don’t know). I’m saying that’s what it looks like.

    • City Slickers traveling through Eastern Nevada would pay Ranchers for tours to see the wild horses. Both ranchers and wild horses are idolized by visitors coming to the Silver State. Connect with Nevada Commission on Tourism to find a new way! Maybe it is time to look at other ways to diversify income besides raising more cattle.

  2. Gene Ralno says:

    I’ve been following the BLM since they exploded over Bundy’s cattle. And I’m following closely the uninvited BLM activity on the Red River. Utah seems always in the BLM crosshairs. But my main focus is the BLM motive for wishing to “study” Lake Lavon, a “leveling reservoir” in North Texas. Now we see the BLM slow-walking the mustang issue. Clearly, they foul cattle grazing areas and cause ranchers to spend time and money to maintain sufficient water supplies. There seems to be a common thread in all these issues. This administration often has demonstrated a brazen willingness to ignore many of its constitutional limitations by using intimidation and litigation to have its way in spite of popular opposition. Anyone who believes this administration is simply doing its job is naïve. While following BLM activities, I’ve been shocked and disappointed to learn that many ordinary and otherwise rational people are convinced that state employees are intellectually inferior to federal bureaucrats. Seems most are set in a rock solid belief that local people are so stupid as to be totally incapable of managing their own local lands. Further, most hold such opinion even if federal funding were redirected to the states.

    That said, I believe these discussions are sideshows and the ultimate goal is to create precedence for future federalization of private lands. Another goal became obvious this year when H.R. 2657 passed out of a Congressional committee. It authorizes the sale of hundreds of thousands of acres of public lands without state input. In view of the $17 trillion debt piled up by this administration, they’re doubtlessly being pressured by foreign debt holders. This administration does not accept the inescapable fact that initial federal policy was to transfer federal lands to private and state ownership. Over the years since formation of the 12 most heavily regulated western states, the idea was hijacked by studies, regulations, memoranda and backroom political deals. It’s outrageous that the federal government simply kept the land and established bureaus, agencies and departments that created thousands of regulations. And compliance now is virtually impossible. I believe the federal government should be limited to the powers enumerated in the Constitution and everything else left to the states. Following the current path, private enterprise will be subordinated to government enterprise. and private stewardship will be subordinated to government stewardship. I’ll be critical of any local politician who allows the BLM to have its way uninvited. I’d recommend culled mustangs be ceded to private parties to deal with as best they can. And it doesn’t make any difference whether recipients are libs or ranchers. I doubt that sufficient numbers will step up and take these animals as pets.

    • sue carter says:

      If Ranchers want to charge for water, then ranchers should becharged the going rate for grazing. not the subsidized $1.35 AUM….

      Private, unirrigated rangeland in the West rents out for an average of $11.90, while monthly grazing fees on federal lands are currently set at a paltry $1.35 per cow and calf. Despite the extreme damage done, western federal rangelands account for less than 3 percent of all forage fed to livestock in the United States. If all livestock were removed from public lands in the West, in fact, beef prices would be unaffected.

  3. Shane Destry says:

    As Sue Carter correctly points out the welfare cattle ranchers for whom Thomas Mitchell always speaks would have a right to complain about wild horses using up “their water” if they were also paying the going rate of $11.90 a month for renting private grazing land instead of the paltry rate of $1.35 per cow and calf for grazing on public land ! By that reckoning every welfare cattle rancher would owe far more than Cliven Bundy to the BLM than the BLM supposedly “owes” them because wild horses are “using up” water in a drought ! This whole issue is patently absurd anyway everyone knows who are the real culprits in not only using up but contaminating 97 billion gallons of water a year .That would be the fracking operations who pay the BLM leasing fees which make the welfare cattle rancher’s grazing permit fees peanuts by comparison ! There are 20,000 wild horses left now free on the range. Do the math if each horse is drinking 20 gallons of water a day they are collectively drinking 14 million gallons of water. But that is a comparative drop in the ocean compared to the water consumed by 12 million cattle and sheep a year particularly combined with the 97 billion gallons used and contaminated by fracking ! It is absurd for any one to complain about the tiny percent of water used by wild horses to stay alive compared to the massive amount used by profiteers just to make themselves richer at the expense of public resources which are not owned by them but by the American people !

  4. Barbara Griffith says:

    The horses are not the ones fowling the grazing the cattle and sheep do a damn good job of that including leaving cow flops in any water they get around. So stop blaming the horses for all the problems including the drought. These horses have as much right as cattle to water and grazing if there is any. I looked at the photo and I didn’t see one horse hanging around the pond, the reason is they drink and leave because water draws predators if there is any left in this area after most of them have been killed off. Cows pull the grass up by the roots because they don’t have teeth top and bottom, sheep do the same thing where horses bite the grass off at the top which does not kill it like pulling it up does. This is one of the reasons that where ever cows and sheep graze the area is barren after a few days. Why do you think some people will hire a goat herd to eat down and pull up brush and weeds from around their property. After a week there is not one weed or anything else left on the property. So leave the horses alone.


  1. […] to round up any more horses, as reported in this week’s newspaper column available online at The Ely Times and the Elko Daily Free […]

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