October 20, 2015

Helicopter crash marks troublesome cattle roundup near Searchlight

Wild, feral, and menacing cattle of the McCullough Range near Searchlight, NV.
By Henry Brean and David Becker
Las Vegas Review-Journal

The wild remnants of one of southern Clark County's last cattle herds are now being cleared from the mountains between Henderson and Searchlight, but the work so far has not gone smoothly.

A crew of cowboys from Utah is gathering stray and feral cows from the McCullough Mountains under a contract with the Nevada Department of Agriculture.

Flint Wright, animal industry administrator for the department, said the operation started Friday and has no scheduled completion date. As of Monday, just 17 cows had been collected.

"They're essentially wild cattle, and it's going to take some time," Wright said.

The roundup hit a major snag Sunday, when a helicopter being used to find and chase cows crashed just off state Route 164 west of Searchlight.

On Tuesday, the wrecked helicopter and its pilot could still be found at a motel in the town 60 miles south of Las Vegas.

Richard Dick of Hutchinson, Kan., said he was hovering about 12 feet off the ground, trying to move a pair of stubborn bulls, when a gust of wind pushed his helicopter into a Joshua tree. The 1962-vintage Bell model 47G ended up on its side in pieces, but he walked away with bumps and bruises.

The pilot said it was his first domestic accident in 17,000 hours of flying, though he crashed three times in Vietnam.

When he climbed out the wreckage Sunday, Dick said, the bulls were just staring at him.

The cattle now being rounded up have roamed the range untended since 2006, when rancher Cal Baird relinquished his federal grazing permit and sold his water rights to the county to preserve habitat for the desert tortoise and other federally protected species.

According to the Bureau of Land Management, Baird moved most of his livestock from the 111,000-acre federal grazing allotment to Arizona, but a few stragglers were left behind.

For the past several years, officials say, those survivors and their unbranded descendants have been damaging springs and menacing people in the mountains and desert between Interstate 15 and U.S. Highway 95 south of the Las Vegas Valley.

BLM spokeswoman Kirsten Cannon said the animals are aggressive and "present a danger to the public recreating in the area."

Wright said: "We've had some complaints from people who were hunting deer and were run off by the cattle."

Baird could not be reached for comment.

Under Nevada law, unbranded stray or feral livestock are considered state property. The BLM has been asking the state to remove the unclaimed cattle from the McCullough Range for several years.

In 2013, the state rounded up and sold off approximately 30 animals, but an unknown number remain. Last year, the BLM counted about 40 unbranded cows spread across two wilderness areas west of Searchlight. Wright guessed there could 100 to 200 feral cows still out there.

He figures it would cost the state as much as $200,000 to try to collect that many animals. The Department of Agriculture has been "trying to get this deal cleaned up for a number of years," but it never seems to have the money or the resources, he said.

The animals are now being rounded up by Sun J Livestock, a ranching operation from Vernal, Utah. Wright said the ranchers aren't being paid directly, but they have plenty of incentive to do a thorough job.

"They get to keep the livestock," he said. "They'll get every cow they can."