Gov. Brian Sandoval urges relaxed grazing restrictions as drought wanes
Gov. Brian Sandoval is urging the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to reconsider livestock grazing restrictions in northeast Nevada, saying that may now be unwarranted given a wet winter that has drought conditions on the mend.
The Republican governor who recently called for expedited roundups of wild horses in Nevada says the agency's current management scheme wrongly prioritizes mustangs ahead of ranchers - a matter of much debate for decades in the 10 western states where the mustangs roam from California to Colorado.
Sandoval said widespread precipitation has provided healthy forage and water resources in areas stung by five consecutive years of drought.
"Drought conditions in 2015 were a very different story and decisions based on that timeframe need to be revisited - especially decisions that drastically affect an industry and the livelihoods of many hardworking Nevadans," he said in a letter last week to BLM Nevada State Director John Ruhs arguing against grazing restrictions anticipated this summer based on last fall's assessments.
Sandoval said he's concerned about the growing over-population of horses, "the negative impact they have on our rangeland, and the burden of the proposed solution being solely put upon the livestock industry."
He said the proposed action "prioritizes wild horse populations above livestock producers."
Nevada is home to nearly 28,000 wild horses - more than half of the 47,000 estimated in the West. BLM argues the range can sustain less than half that many - about 12,000 in Nevada and 26,000 nationally.
Nevada BLM spokesman Stephen Clutter told The Associated Press that agency officials are conducting tours with grazing permittees to observe on-the-ground conditions and discuss management options and changes for the 2016 season.
Clutter agrees there's been "significant improvements" in drought conditions over the past year but expressed caution. "The effects of drought are cumulative and it can take several years of good precipitation for vegetation to fully recover," he said.
At the governor's wildland fire briefing in Carson City last week, Nevada State Water Engineer Jason King said the 2015-16 winter was good when considering the four years prior.
"I characterize it as an average water year," King said. "We're doing much better than we were, but we're not out of the drought and we shouldn't forget that."
Clutter said grazing restrictions are one of the tools the agency has to protect the ecological health of the range, and the Wild Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 is just one of many laws that guide BLM.
Under that law, areas where the animals were found in 1971 are to be managed "principally but not necessarily exclusively" for wild horses or burros, Clutter said
Greta Anderson, deputy director of the Idaho-based conservation group the Western Watersheds Project, said it's clear ranchers have no legal right to graze their livestock on public lands.
"They have the privilege of having the preference to graze when conditions are favorable as determined by the BLM and based on science," she said. "First in line should be the endangered species like the sage grouse that absolutely need to be relieved of livestock grazing in their range if they are going to recover."
Anderson said Sandoval's letter is "indicative of how politicized public lands livestock grazing is - with the industry getting politicians to strong-arm agency decision making."
"Instead, the governor should be concerned with job creation programs for a sustainable economy," she said, "and propping up the cowboy culture of the arid West isn't it."
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