Eureka County Public Tour of Fish Creek HMA: More questions than answers.
Yesterday Eureka County Staged a Public Tour of Fish Creek HMA and I was privileged to attend. After meeting at the Eureka County administration building we regrouped at Hwy. 50 and Antelope Rd. This was also the site of recent conflicts between BLM and rancher Kevin Borba. Eureka County Natural Resource Manager Jake Tibbitts, well prepared with multiple talking points, made a rather lengthy presentation of grievances. Clarifications were made, including how I happened to be involved. I explained I’d met WH&B specialist Shawna Richardson at the Elko RAC meeting last October. As I realize the need for controlling wild horse numbers, I had been following the development and implementation of the Fish Creek Fertility Control Program. There was also much animosity expressed about Laura Leigh’s involvement. There some confusion about her role as an official BLM volunteer versus her actions as a public citizen, which I will not debate here.
There were approximately 20-25 people in attendance. In addition to Mr. Tibbitts was Eureka County Commission Chairman JJ Goicoechea, BLM Battle Mountain District Manager Doug Furtado, Acting State Director John Ruhs, a number of local ranchers and journalists from Progressive Rancher and Range magazine. I offered clarification about the KB brand, that it does not mean Kick Butt (this was the first I’d heard of that!) but is code for the date and HMA. More on that in a later post.
We caravaned to most of the major watering sites on the HMA, going deeply south to the Davis Pipeline where a small group of horses was watering. There was discussion of who actually owns the water rights. I got an education in just how confusing water rights are in Nevada. Mr. Tibbitts had the original maps from the State Water Engineer and it appears that the water rights on much of the property go back to 1905 – 1926. What is confusing is that there are several overlapping layers of “rights” and permits. In general the rights are historical and go with the land. Mr. Tibbitts suggested that the only way to absolutely solve the question is to adjudicate, a legal process presenting evidence to a judge who makes a decision. In this case the evidence appears to favor Mr. Borba who made a point of telling everyone, once again, that the Number Four Spring “hadn’t run for eight years and we got it running.” Interestingly, it states on all grazing permits, “The permittee will be required to repair and maintain all functional water wells, pipelines and troughs prior to turnout. Grazing use will not be authorized unless water wells, pipelines and troughs are functional.” I’m not sure how this makes him a hero. On the State of Nevada Division of Water Resources website I found three permits for the Number Four Spring, two for BLM and one for the previous permittee. View here: Permit. Again, the confusion about permits, versus rights.
Below is a map provided by Mr. Tibbitts. The horse icon in the upper left is the intersect between Hwy 50 and Antelope Rd. where horses lingered because they found water before, both in the seasonal depression and when Mr. Borba hauled water to them. The point was made repeatedly that the horses were off the HMA. (Just for yuks here’s a pic of cows in my fence out campground Cows in Camp)
Bob Brown Well
We proceeded to Bob Brown Well, (see map) which was a major bone of contention. This was one of the water sources that went dry the week before my arrival in Battle Mountain. BLM does own the rights to this water but, it is roughly a thousand feet outside the HMA. Oopsie. Much was made of BLM not keeping to the same regulations that it demands of it’s permittees. It seems there have been numerous bureaucratic oversights by BLM in regard to the various water sources. The solution proposed by Mr. Furtado for Bob Brown Well is to pipe the water back up into the HMA but the details are fuzzy at this time.
On the way to view the Slough Water Haul (see map) we saw several family groups. I truly don’t think there was a person there, from the ranchers, to officials, to the sheriff, who didn’t appreciate the sight of wild horses running in distance.
Slough Water Haul
The Slough Water Haul was the second of the water sources that failed at the end of July. 3800 gallons of water is hauled on a regular basis from Diamond Valley. Again, the complicated nature of Nevada water rights asserted itself. It’s not simply buying water. (Mr. Borba relayed to me that BLM said they didn’t have money to haul water.) Actually, the issue is not money, but that the water is coming from Diamond Valley. That makes it an “inter-basin transfer.” Because the point of use (the Slough) is different from the point of diversion (Diamond Valley) it requires a permit that has not been secured. Again it was argued that BLM was not adhering to the same types of regulations that it requires of permittees. The reasons for how the Slough tank came to be dry or why water deliveries contracted by BLM were discontinued remained a mystery.
Wild Horse Numbers
Many of the ranchers responded angrily toward BLM representatives, expressing their frustration that same solutions have been offered repeatedly since the 1990’s. While ranchers have been cut and are now voluntarily keeping their grazing numbers at roughly half of what is allowed, promises that were made with each succeeding program, that horses will be kept at AML and have never been kept.
While their anger is understandable, the fact that 246 horses were removed and NOT returned to the range is a point that seems to have been lost along with the fact that removal numbers were limited to 200 at the federal level, not the local level (because of lack of holding space). Also lost is the fact that nearly fifty horses beyond that quota actually were taken off. Final numbers according to WH&B Specialist Shawna Richardson are as follows:*
- 247 horses removed and NOT returned, including those euthanized and adopted.
- 168 horses branded, the mares treated with PZP-22 and returned to the range.
- 15 mares with foals are still in holding awaiting release.
- 120 horses estimated NOT captured.
- 351 horses estimated to currently be on the HMA, not including spring foals.
*Numbers may differ very slightly.
Here are some links with some brief background info:
PZP Follow Through
There was a great deal of mistrust of and misunderstanding about the current PZP program. The mistrust is understandable since PZP was administered once in 1998, was estimated to be 90% effective in preventing foal births in 1999 and failed once again due to lack of commitment and follow through. Everything the ranchers are hearing now, they have heard before. Repeatedly. It is incumbent upon BLM to keep their commitment, both to the ranchers, the horses and the American public. This means follow through, treating the remaining untreated mares and boosters to the treated mares, regardless of whether it is accomplished with water trapping or requires helicopter gathers. The breach of trust in this community is so deep it’s going to require BLM to follow through with cooperation and action. Acting State Director John Ruhs listened well and offered assurances. Time will tell.
After the tour I attended the Eureka County Natural Resources Advisory Commission. That’s for another post, probably after I field the flack from this one.
I want to offer a special thank you to Eureka County Sheriff Keith Logan for allowing me to ride along and share his insights. Could not even take my van on those roads!
*Update. Because of the severe resistance in the ranching community, the contraceptive program has been suspended, dooming a thorough and committed plan to failure. I fail to see the logic of this.