October 11, 2001

Dispute Over California Desert Range Turns On Ruling Conflict

Livestock Weekly

BARSTOW, Calif. — Federal officials and environmental activists contend that cattle are grazing in forbidden territory. One of the ranchers is pinning his hopes on a last-minute appeal by his attorney. Another rancher says it is the federal government that in violation of a court ruling.

Under an agreement between the BLM and the Tucson, Ariz.,-based Center for Biological Diversity and the Sierra Club, about a half-million California acres are off-limits to grazing from Sept. 7 to Nov. 7, and from March 1 to June 15.

The agreement also restricts mining and off-road recreation to protect habitat for a tortoise, bighorn sheep and 22 other species.

Environmental activists claim the cattle out-compete the reptiles for food, stomp on their burrows and crush the tortoises.

The tortoise is rapidly declining in the desert, say the activists, because of grazing, respiratory disease, predators such as ravens, off-roading and urban sprawl.

The ranchers say prohibiting grazing in the area will put an end to their livelihood. It would cost an estimated $15 million to fence the area.

The Bureau of Land Management agreed last month to have eight ranchers remove their cattle from 427,000 acres of public land that is home to the desert tortoise, an officially "threatened" species.

The two-month fall removal period was to begin Sept. 7, but BLM officials, reportedly riding off-road vehicles, say they found cattle from two of the allotment ranchers on the out-of-bounds territory in the Mojave Desert here.

San Bernardino County officials say they're worried that the court order could erupt into a range war.

Sheriff Gary Penrod says he canceled an agreement that allowed federal rangers to enforce state and local laws against such things as drunken driving and vandalism. Penrod says he doesn't want to be associated with any BLM worker who might precipitate violent range disputes.

Employees at the BLM's office in Barstow and Needles who normally work on recreation, maintenance, law enforcement and wildlife issues now look for cattle where they aren't supposed to be. They cover the eight ranches between the San Bernardino Mountains and the Nevada border, some 200 miles away.

At the end of September, Anthony Chavez of the BLM's Barstow office found 12 cattle and three horses on the off-limits range on the Cady Mountain allotment.

Tom Wetterman leases the Cady Mountain allotment for 150 cattle.

The Wettermans' Cady Mountain allotment, about 25 miles east of Barstow, is 230,000 acres. Cattle grazing would be restricted seasonally on about 88,000 acres.

On Sept. 25, BLM monitors say they found 12 cattle grazing illegally on Wettermans' allotment. Seven cattle were found Sept. 20 in a restricted area, BLM officials say.

Wetterman says he's counting on an appeal Wyoming-based attorney Karen Budd-Falen filed with the Office of Hearings and Appeals in the U.S. Interior Department.

San Bernardino County also filed an appeal on behalf of the ranchers.

In the meantime, Wetterman and his wife, Jeanne, have turned off the well that lures the cattle to the banned area and are negotiating with the BLM to move the boundaries of the exclusion area, according to BLM officials.

Tim Read, BLM district manager in Barstow, says the couple could face fines or suspension of their grazing permit. Eventually, the cattle could be impounded.

Other cattle have been spotted by BLM or environmental activist "cattle watchers" on an allotment southeast of Barstow that is leased by Dave Fisher, president of the High Desert Cattlemen's Association.

The order bans grazing on 54,000 acres of federal land near Fisher's Shield F Ranch, near Ord Mountain, south of Barstow. On Sept. 21, BLM monitors say they found 54 head of cattle at six different locations in restricted areas on Fisher's grazing allotment. On Sept. 16 and Sept. 19, inspectors say they found 19 cattle grazing illegally.

Fisher says it's the BLM that hasn't complied with a court order. Following a 13-day hearing in Barstow, an Interior administrative law judge ruled in August that the BLM failed to consult with the ranchers before issuing the range-closure order.

The BLM set up a two-day workshop in Barstow so the federal officials could meet with the ranchers, but several of the ranchers say they weren't notified in time to attend. Fisher says he was out of town at the time.

The appeal, filed by Budd-Falen, is based on the ranchers' accusation that the BLM failed to consult with them.

Fisher says he has enlisted the aid of a rangeland improvement task force from Las Cruces, N.M., that has agreed to facilitate meetings between the ranchers and BLM.

October 1, 2001

Siege of the Tortoise

Fifth generation rancher Dave Fisher has worked the tough high desert country in the Mojave all his life. He is a champion to other cattle growers who find their livelihoods imperiled by yet another environmental “surrogate” —the desert tortoise.

Dave Fisher, President of High Desert Cattlemen's Association
By Tim Findley
Range Magazine

Dave Fisher gazed out from the passenger seat of the sheriff’s Jeep and seemed to be struggling a little more than usual at holding down the sort of temper that erupts in slow waves from a large, quiet man not used to starting trouble.

“I guess I could just go up and tell them it’s private land and they need to get off,” he said, more like thinking aloud than actually proposing such a threat.

“You could, Dave,” Sheriff’s Sergeant Errol Bechtel reassured him. “We’d be with you.”

But Fisher said no more. Up ahead, the old van was pulled headlong into a flat spot off the rocky road, its sliding panel door open to the noontime heat. There was no one visibly inside it or nearby on the barren slopes dotted with short stands of Mojave yucca and scattered with sharp ankle-busting igneous debris strewn about by some previous eruption.

It wasn’t until the obvious law enforcement vehicle was near enough to be making loud crumbling noises off the road that a young man finally swung into view, feet first from the shade of the van, and sat with his knees to his chin in the panel doorway. He was dressed in shorts with no shirt, and his healthy pride of wavy golden brown hair and beard gave him away in about an auction second as just about what Dave Fisher expected.

Still, the tall rancher said nothing of what he was thinking as he strode on up the last bit of distance to where the young man stared back at him, a cloud of uncertain defiance already showing on his face. “Do you know you’re on private property?” Fisher asked at last in a not altogether unfriendly way. “No I don’t,” said the young man, shifting his glare between Fisher and Sergeant Bechtel. “But is that why the sheriffs keep stopping us twice a day?”

From that point, it could have gotten to be a much warmer afternoon. “...And I don’t appreciate your invading my privacy, either,” the young man added to the shutter-clicking Range photographer. As it turned out, though, young Dan Kent wasn’t a half-bad guy to talk to. They hadn’t “stopped” him or others along the road in the past couple of days, but deputies had checked their vehicles before, and this time, maybe the presence of a young lady who stayed well back in the shadows of the van added a little to Kent’s irritation at the interruption.

It was private land they were on—Dave Fisher’s deeded land that is spotted over more than 5,000 acres of Ord Mountain near Barstow, Calif., where Kent, a Utah resident, and about two dozen other trained and certified young people like him, have come for the summer to count tortoises.

Their contract with U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, underwritten with contributions from the Department of Defense, calls for an expenditure of $400,000 to total up a fairly accurate estimate of how many of the hard-shelled critters there are creeping among the volcanic debris, sagebrush, and rattlesnakes of Ord Mountain.

When he warmed a little to Fisher’s cool hospitality, Kent admitted that up to that point, they had probably counted more rattlers. But that’s something Fisher could have told him beforehand. Where they were at nearly 5,000 feet is above the normal range of the desert tortoise, and the “turtle,” as Fisher prefers defiantly to call it, is not fool enough to be crawling around in the heat of the day. So what, exactly, Fisher felt he had a right to ask, did these people think they were really doing on his grazing allotments and deeded land in a valley so wild and bare that “tree top” is measured by the miles between them?

If it’s what Fisher, and the High Desert Cattlemen’s Association, and the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Office, and most local governments for hundreds of miles around think it is, then the “turtle counters” Fisher fumes over have themselves in the middle of a mess that won’t so easily be solved by helping Dan Kent and his funded friends find the dim lines on a map between “public” and private land.

Fisher wouldn’t recognize himself as a sort of high-pocketed, modest Stetson, Gene Autry type hero, but for at least the last 10 years, this fifth generation rancher with a voice about as hard as the rocks he was raised on, has been the singular champion on behalf of cattle growers all over the high desert who find their livelihood imperiled by yet another environmentalist “surrogate”—the desert tortoise.

There was probably an incident one day somewhere in the Mojave Desert during the last 150 years when a big bovine of some type accidentally put its clumsy hoof on the back of a tortoise and squashed it. Must have happened, like all things do. No shell-scattered body was ever found to prove it, however, and, actually, the flat smears you can still occasionally see along U.S. 395 attest to the much more likely, and still common, catastrophe encountered by the long-lived reptile. Cows, to those who don’t know, aren’t capable of grubbing down to the base of plants, and because they eat the higher foliage, may actually improve growth for what’s at the bottom, where the tortoise eats. And as for leftovers, it seems an open question over whether the tortoise is choosy about where it obtains its carbohydrates. It is a fundamentally stupid issue. Cows don’t threaten tortoises.

If they did, for example, it might have been much less likely 25 or 30 years ago, when the price of gasoline was cheap enough to be competitive, that a few service stations in the hot flat stretches offered a free tortoise with every fill-up. It happened, and how many of the critters got tossed in the back of somebody’s suburban station wagon for a ride into extinction is anybody’s guess.

The desert tortoise is, even today, not endangered. It has just been made to seem that way by the pressure of environmentalist organizations led by the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity and opportunistic politicians who have added it to the “threatened” list of American species. Nobody really knows if even that much is true, which is one of the reasons federal authorities say they are willing to spend nearly half a million dollars in an attempt to count the slow moving creatures one-by-one on Dave Fisher’s “Shield F” ranch.

Ord Mountain is not the motherlode of desert tortoises, and counting them there won’t make scientific history. But Fisher made trouble right from the start in 1990 when the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity as well as the Audubon Society and others interested in “cattle free” rangeland first began waving around the tortoise as their own version of the spotted owl.

With generations of his own experience behind him, and aided by the knowledge shared by others who had lived and died in the Ord Valley without sometimes as much as a road to get the body out before spring, Fisher tried to point out to federal Bureau of Land Management authorities that any potential argument between ranchers and “turtles” made no sense.

For his trouble, Fisher got recognized last year, in the dying days of the Babbitt empire, as the grazing permittee and landholder most likely to be a problem to the maybe doomed tortoise. Based on an out-of-court settlement with the environmentalists, the BLM, in effect, directed Fisher to cease full grazing on 154,000 acres of his generations- old permit, and to expect trouble on even his own 5,000 acres of deeded land. They knew such an order, even if it was temporary, could drive him out of business, and even said so in their “findings.”

Incredibly, the BLM concluded in its written report that the region’s economy would be benefited by the nonprofit “financial sponsors” of the turtle savers. “...the cost savings realized by temporarily not investing money in a livestock operation would allow groups to divert funds into land acquisition, management, administrative functions and other endeavors.”

Fisher is, for all you’ll ever see of him, a calm, quiet man. But there’s something in the way he asks his own questions that suggests more. He talks to himself, works the problem out loud; he settles for stewing patience. But one of these days...
His friends—the longtime friends of his family over generations in the San Bernardino Valley—knew that about Dave. If in the BLM decision directing protection of the tortoise Dave Fisher and the Shield F were to be the fall guy, it certainly wouldn’t happen without resistance.

Thus in short order after Fisher was directed to remove cattle from his allotments, did the county sheriff sever formal enforcement agreements with the BLM and let it be known whose side deputies would take in any dispute. “This action...may result in physical resistance by cattlemen attempting to preserve their stock,” wrote San Bernardino County Sheriff Gary Penrod in a letter to the BLM. “I do not wish to be associated with any [BLM] personnel who may be precipitating possible violent range disputes through their official action.”

So, similarly, did County Supervisor Bill Postmus fire off a letter warning of “actionable harm” to the county’s economy if the BLM tried to put ranchers out of business. And so up the line through 28 members of the state legislature and at least one member of Congress objecting to BLM’s arbitrary action did the letters fly.

But that didn’t stop the Center for Biological Diversity and their love of the little tortoise from threatening more lawsuits to force BLM action. By the beginning of this year, they quietly staged the training ground sessions in Las Vegas that brought such people as Dan Kent and his friends from Utah to learn about counting tortoises in a moving two mile grid over “public” land on Ord Mountain. And though it costs money just to send young folks like them out to tramp around the rattlesnakes, that suddenly came available from the U.S. Department of Defense, which, oddly enough, borders Fisher’s allotments and properties on two sides. The Army’s Fort Irwin and the Marine’s 29 Palms desert airbase are both reportedly eager to expand their own operations without any tortoise trouble.

So far, other than that, nothing has happened. The BLM knows Fisher is not about to remove his cattle, and they know not to expect anything like help from the local sheriff if they try it themselves.

“Oh, you’re Fisher!” Dan Kent said in obvious recognition that day on the mountain.

Fisher, as noted, is the kind of slow-to-rile guy who also finds it hard to just let something go. You can just about watch it physically happening as he struggles with himself between patience and a roar you sense is down there wanting to come out. Finally, that afternoon after explaining in several ways to Kent and others from his “turtle counting” expedition what is private and “public” property, Fisher climbed back into the friendly sheriff’s Jeep.

“Maybe,” he said, talking to himself again. “I should have just told them to get off.”

Update: In June, Interior Secretary Gale Norton declared a state of emergency involving the BLM demands on Fisher and six other ranchers in the Mojave. She ordered a hearing before an administrative law judge in late July to review BLM actions halting grazing on behalf of the tortoises.

The “turtle counters” on Fisher’s land, meanwhile, have gone somewhere else, but not before sending a letter to BLM authorities in Barstow which sources said complained of Fisher and a group of armed men in “dusters” harassing one of their volunteers. According to sources, the letter claimed Fisher had “brown drool” at the corner of his mouth, and the volunteer was particularly upset by a photographer who “violated his privacy” by taking his picture without his permission.

Tim Findley—the photographer complained about by the turtle counter—witnessed neither dusters nor drool.