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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Read additional musings on his blog at http://4thst8.wordpress.com/.