Cattle and wild horses are competing for water on the Western range.

A “Weed Extravaganza” is set for April 29-May 1 at the California Trail Interpretive Center in Elko County.

It’s a reflection of the fact that weeds can proliferate in drought periods, in turn creating more ground cover, in turn helping wildfires spread more rapidly, in turn making wildfires more difficult to fight.

So the workshop in Elko County at the end of the month will help ranchers, farmers and others strategize on how to control weeds, particularly invasive weeds.

Drought in Nevada and the West is looming larger as summer draws nearer. With water being squeezed, difficult choices must be made.

Nevada’s a mining state, for instance. “Surely in times of drought, such as now exists in much of Far West, mines located in arid locations like Nevada could help supplement agricultural or municipal water needs, thus helping to foster trust between mining operators and local communities?” asked mining journalist Dorothy Kosich on Mineweb. Her answer wasn’t all that reassuring to anyone without a stake in the mining industry:

“However, dry year options aren’t an option for Nevada gold mining companies to help their neighbors in times of drought. In Nevada, one of the largest water rights holders for the Humboldt River, which flows through a considerable portion of the state’s gold mining region, is Newmont Gold. During these past two years of drought, at least one Nevada municipality has asked Newmont for water to supplement their storage water supply. However, Newmont is probably unable to accommodate that community’s needs.”

In California, Gov. Jerry Brown told his department heads to ease water transfers so commercial water can be made available to municipalities, some of which have imposed rationing. Nevada doesn’t have the laws providing for those kinds of actions.

In ranching, companies want to squeeze every drop from the land, which pits them against an emotional symbol—the wild horse. This confrontation was given a face when rancher Cliven Bundy took on the Bureau of Land Management, though not all western ranchers welcomed Bundy as their voice.

Bundy has refused to pay his grazing fees since 1993 and has asserted in court that the Bureau of Land Management has no authority over the range because his family was using it before the agency was created. The courts have consistently rejected that argument. But BLM has been reluctant to enforce the law on him until the drought started squeezing water. Without support from the law, Bundy invited supporters onto his ranch to face off with federal officials last week. His supporters, too, tried to raise the temperature of the confrontation, with headlines on their websites like “Armed Fed Agents and Snipers?” (TheBlaze.com) and “Ruby Ridge-style Standoff Brewing” (TeaPartyTribune.com).

In interviews. Bundy made it clear he would accept as legal only decisions that go in his favor. “I’ve tried to stop them for 20 years,” he told the Las Vegas Sun. “I’ve tried to be legal in the courts. I’ve tried to do it politically and through the media. Now, it’s about down to having to do it as we the people.” His grazing fee arrears are in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The issue became ensnared with the wild horse issue because money to remove horses from the range is limited and the feds are already under fire from wild horse advocates for some removals. The ranchers don’t want horses competing for water and graze.

County commissions in Iron County and Beaver County in Utah attacked the BLM for failing to get rid of the horses. They were particularly irate over the BLM-funded operations to confiscate Bundy’s cattle in Clark County, Nevada, with estimates of that cost ranging from $1 million to $2 million.

At a meeting of the Iron County commissioners and BLM officials, the county officials ended the meeting when they heard that it might take months to remove the horses. Commissioner Dave Miller said, “We have to protect the range. We will lose the range this year with drought, the impacts of new foals. …. So let me be clear: Any plan that talks about removing those horses in multiple months is unacceptable. We have to get those horses off the range immediately.”

The commissioners and Iron County Sheriff Mark Gower formally notified BLM officials last week that if the agency doesn’t remove the horses, they will. That would put county officials in the position of trying to capture about 1,700 wild horses, which could be a multi-million dollar operation.

After BLM started confiscating Bundy cattle—and did it without violence—U.S. Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada jumped in on Bundy’s side. In its entirety, Heller’s release read, “(Washington, D.C.) – Today, U.S. Senator Dean Heller (R-NV) issued this statement regarding land closures that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has initiated due to the ongoing, court-ordered roundup of rancher Cliven Bundy’s cattle: ’I spoke with BLM Director [Neil] Kornze this morning to express great disappointment with the way that this situation is being handled. I told him very clearly that law-abiding Nevadans must not be penalized by an over-reaching BLM. After hearing from local officials and residents, and receiving feedback from the Nevada Cattlemen’s Association in a meeting this morning, I remain extremely concerned about the size of this closure and disruptions with access to roads, water and electrical infrastructure. I will continue to closely monitor this situation, and urge the BLM to make the necessary changes in order to preserve Nevadans’ constitutional rights.’ ”

It’s not clear why, but the Heller release mentioned Bundy by name only in the section normally read by reporters, but not in the section of the release containing Heller’s prepared public statement. Heller did not say how the Bundy problem should have been handled or offer any alternative plan for dealing with it.

Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, a former federal judge and state attorney general, also sided with Bundy.

Iron County columnist Dallas Hyland wrote that Bundy’s friends have given him bad advice. “The day he decided to stop paying his grazing allotment fees required by law, (not imaginary law, mind you, but real law passed by Congress and enforced by federal agency) he rendered his voice and any control he had over the destiny and use of the land irrelevant,” Hyland wrote.

The Salt Lake Tribune editorialized, “But just because something is public doesn’t give all, or any, members of the public the right to wander onto that land and do anything they want. Grazing cattle, rounding up wild horses, running off-road vehicles or doing other things anybody pleases—under the theory that federal land is public and open—makes no more sense than claiming that anybody who feels like it can set up a hot dog stand in the Capitol Rotunda or bed down for the night in the White House.”

A BLM statement said it was “unfair to the thousands of other ranchers who graze livestock in compliance with federal laws and regulations throughout the West” for Bundy to get away with 20 years of free grazing, and that he had resisted administrative and judicial resolutions.

Nearly everyone on both sides of the issue faults the BLM for failing to curb Bundy before two decades had passed.

The BLM eventually called off the confiscation of Bundy cattle to avoid the risk of violence.

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Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...