March 24, 2002

A Fight to Protect Home on the Range

By Rene Sanchez
Washington Post

The cowboys on Dave Fisher's ranch have an unwelcome new chore: They are wrangling to save a reptile.

In cattle roundups like none other in the West, they saddle up at daybreak and set out for hours along rocky trails that wind through miles of grazing land here in the Mojave Desert, searching for cows that may be unwittingly wiping out small tortoises indigenous to the region.

The work is rough and slow, and Fisher, a grizzled rancher who prefers the old rules of the open range, would rather not bother with it. But for the first time, he has no choice.

"The environmental folks," he said, "are changing everything."

It all began this month. After years of lawsuits, studies and court hearings, he and every other cattle rancher in the Mojave are being forced to remove herds from nearly a half-million acres of federal grazing land during the six months the imperiled desert tortoises emerge from burrows to mate and forage for food.

The range may never be the same in this blazing and barren mountainous region 150 miles east of Los Angeles. It is the latest battleground in the West's chronic conflict over public land, which is escalating once more. Conservation groups are engaged in new fights over protections won for threatened species in recent years, and land interests that say their livelihoods are being ruined by such campaigns are hoping a sympathetic White House will defend their cause.

To keep cattle away from tortoises, federal land managers are erecting fences across long stretches of grazing areas. Once a week, they also are patrolling for cows now considered trespassers on turf they have long roamed. Ranchers, who face fines and other penalties if they fail to comply with the regulations, are shutting off water wells in some areas in the hope of moving herds.

Environmentalists say the steps are hardly too much to ask of ranchers to help save the desert tortoise, which the federal government declared a threatened species more than a decade ago. They say grazing cattle can crush tortoises or their burrows, eat vegetation they need to survive and trample ground plants they use to hide from desert predators.

The tortoises, about a foot long, are also vital to the health of desert wildlife, biologists say. Other species use their burrows as homes, too. By some estimates, hundreds of tortoises could once be found on every square mile here. Now the tally, at best, is dozens. The tortoises live underground when the desert climate is harsh but come out during the spring and fall, which is when ranchers now have to clear out their cattle.

"Livestock is certainly not the only threat these tortoises face. It's just the most unnecessary threat, and the one that we can most control," said Daniel Patterson, an ecologist with the Center for Biological Diversity, which has led the fight to limit grazing in the Mojave. "All ranchers have to do is move their herds off some of the land for some of the year. It's a real reasonable deal, and it's what's most in the public interest."

But ranchers say they are reeling from the restrictions. Rounding up and moving cattle from such large swaths of land is complicated and expensive, they say, because of the desert's difficult terrain and limited water supply.

Some ranchers contend the new rules could cost them several hundred thousand dollars and force them to reduce the size of their herds or drive them out of business altogether.

"This is giving us a real hard time," said Ron Kemper, whose cattle graze on 150,000 acres in the Mojave. "You just can't step outside and say, 'Come here, cows.' I really think some people hope this makes us all go bankrupt and leave the land."

Officials in San Bernardino County, in which most of the Mojave lies, are supporting the ranchers. Some say environmentalists are exaggerating the trouble that cattle cause and contend the tortoises face much more danger from ravens and the growing army of weekend warriors driving off-road vehicles through the desert. They also worry that the restrictions will harm the local economy.

Bill Postmus, a county supervisor, sees even bigger stakes. The clash over the tortoise, he said, is in many ways a struggle over what the priorities of the West should be. "It's not just about a few old ranchers out here," he said.

The plight of the desert tortoise has long been a subject of intense federal debate. Near the end of the Clinton administration, after years of scrutiny into what ails the species, the Bureau of Land Management negotiated a settlement with environmental groups that had sued to limit grazing in the Mojave.

Ranchers were supposed to be ordered off sensitive land last spring. But after dispatching investigators to the desert and spotting cows all over newly restricted areas, environmental groups charged that the federal land agency had decided to ignore the agreement after President Bush took office.

They returned to court and won another victory when U.S. District Judge William Alsup, a Clinton appointee who oversaw the settlement, accused the Bush administration of violating "the letter, the spirit and everything about" the limits on grazing. Alsup threatened to hold federal officials in contempt and ordered the process to begin last fall. Furious, the ranchers appealed.

But an administrative judge appointed by the Interior Department to hear the case upheld the earlier ruling, although he said the BLM did not adequately consult with the ranchers about the change coming to the range.

Some ranchers appealed again and won temporary reprieves last fall just as they began removing cattle. Since then, ranchers have reached an uneasy truce over the issue and are cooperating with BLM officials. A few are still plotting legal strategies to try to overturn the grazing limits.

At times, local authorities have feared the tense dispute would erupt into violence, but none has been reported.

"So far, so good," said Larry Morgan, a conservationist with the BLM's Mojave office. "This is a big adjustment for everyone. The ranchers are pushing the cattle out, but in some places there's nothing to stop them from going right back. It's hard on them, and it's hard on us to get out there and monitor what's going on."

Environmentalists say they have doubts that federal officials are enforcing the grazing limits. They are sending their own investigators into the desert to make sure cattle are no longer in sensitive tortoise habitat.

"We realize things aren't going to change overnight," Patterson said. "But we're not going away on this issue."

Fisher, whose family has been ranching in the Mojave since the 1920s, sounds both defiant and defeated about the new policy. He is president of the local cattlemen's association and says that all the talk on the range these days is about whether to keep fighting or to give up and sell.

He owns about 400 cows and now has to keep them off 65,000 acres. Until BLM officials finish building a fence stretching 12 miles across the land he uses, he has cowboys working dawn to dusk to get cattle out and off the restricted area. Many of his cows are native, he said, and do not want to leave the only water spots and trails they know.

"We've never been kept out of our spring country before," Fisher said. "And when they want to start taking away my family's livelihood like this, I've got to say, 'Whoa.' But heck, I suppose what's happening is also probably just inevitable. It's all changing out here."

Dave Fisher, whose family has been ranching since the 1920s, says the new rule protecting tortoises could put some ranchers out of business.Hundreds of tortoises could once be found on every square mile of the Mojave Desert. The tally has dropped to dozens per mile.