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.