“But do not be angry, my lord, that I make merry in this way; very often I have heard a truth told in jest.” — Chaucer, Canterbury Tales, 1390
AUSTIN — In late April in an old Methodist Church, ranchers and public officials huddled to discuss what could be done to counter the ever tightening restrictions on grazing on federal public lands.
“I just want to have a little bit of fun real quick, as I sit here in this building and look at everybody,” Dave Stix Jr., chairman of the state Department of Agriculture, commented, “I just want everybody to know that the seeds of revolution began in a small church. (Laughter.) Now, take this statement lightly, because we hope that the future is a little bit more controlled and we can go about this a little bit differently. As we go through the day and talk, I just want everybody to know there’s a time growing near that all us need to strike while the iron is hot.
“And I will tell you from listening to the people who have spoken around this room, it was said, not in a little church, but it was said in a small building in Pennsylvania that, if we don’t hang together, most assuredly we’ll all hang separately.”
Stix’s remark about revolution struck a chord, because the attempt by the Bureau of Land Management to roundup Bunkerville rancher Cliven Bundy’s cattle from federal public land in the Gold Butte area had just been called off, reportedly to avoid violence between 200 heavily armed BLM agents and armed citizens who had come to protest the confiscation. The meeting in Austin also occurred mere days after the anniversary of the Battle of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775 — the shot heard round the world.
Stix mentioned the Bundy confrontation. Twenty years ago Bundy stopped paying grazing fees to the BLM after the agency ordered the cattle off the range in the spring of each year to protect desert tortoises as they emerged from hibernation. (The irony impaired BLM officials seemed unaware that their roundup occurred at precisely the same time as desert tortoises were emerging from hibernation.
Bundy had explained to the BLM that from July to February desert range cattle actually lose weight. If he paid his fees and grazed when the BLM told him to, he would have gone broke. It was a Catch-22. Pay your fees and go broke. Defy the order and have your cattle confiscated.
“The desert tortoise is our sage grouse up here,” Stix told the ranchers in the Austin workshop. “It’s also the wild horse. We believe the sage grouse is a means for taking us off the rangeland to be able to use that land for something else, rather than agriculture activity. So the NCA (Nevada Cattlemen’s Association) came out with a statement that we support the idea of grazing and we want our cattlemen to all be good stewards of the land and we should be paying our fees. But at the same time we commended Mr. Bundy for standing his ground.”
Stix went on to point out that not everyone in Nevada is “hanging together.”
“Just recently, as most of you know, a biologist from the (Nevada) Department of Wildlife absolutely threw the cattlemen completely under the bus, tied our legs to the muffler and drug us down a dirt road,” he said. “That’s an understatement.”
In a letter to the BLM, a Nevada Department of Wildlife biologist expressed concern about the management of livestock grazing, saying “rangeland health standards” are not being met where grazing takes place on greater sage grouse habitat.
Needless to say this blindsided and infuriated ranchers.
Jim Shirley, the Pershing County district attorney, continued the theme of ranchers hanging together, lest they hang separately. “What you find is that BLM comes in on your individual ranch and does something, right? It’s just you and the BLM. Collectively you have a strong voice but individually it is very easy for them to intimidate you and push you around. …” he said. “If you don’t let them do certain things, you’re not going to get your allotment, you’re not going to get your permits. If you are alone, it is really hard to fight that. You really need to think about how collectively you help each other out.”
(Next week: More on the plight of Nevada ranchers.)
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/.