WSJ: In the battle for the American West, the cowboys are losing

Nevada rancher Wayne Hage tends to cows. Jake Nicol/The Wall Street Journal

by Jim Carlton | March 30, 2018

Federal lands west of the Rockies are now also home to more hikers and campers, and the competition is fierce

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MONITOR VALLEY, Nev. – Wayne Hage saddled up to check on his cattle one morning last summer, but he didn’t have to ride far. All his cows were confined to a private field near his ranch house, instead of roaming the Toquima and Monitor mountains, as herds have done for more than a century.

Federal officials have prodded Hage cattle off this lonesome stretch of central Nevada. They didn’t use a lasso. The government corralled the cows through a series of court rulings and policy changes to limit grazing—tactics applied broadly to ranchers across the West.

Now, the Hage cows are gone from that private pasture and the family ranch is in foreclosure.

“You can get on your horse and look like John Wayne out here, but live the most miserable life ever because you’re dealing with lawyers all the time,” said the 42-year-old Mr. Hage.

In the latest land war for the American West, the cowboys are losing.

Ranchers who rely on public land to raise their cattle say they have shrinking access to wide open spaces, grass and water because of an array of regulations. Over the last four decades, the number of cows grazing on public lands has dropped by nearly half.

In some cases, government officials curb grazing to protect natural resources from damage caused by cattle, and create preserves for threatened species. In others, officials close land to ranchers to give more access to the public for hiking and other activities that fuel the fast-growing recreation industry.

As frustrations peaked, in extreme instances, some cowboys have taken up arms against the government for what they say are overly restrictive policies. Ranchers took over a National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon in 2016; before that, Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy mounted a standoff with federal officials.

President Donald Trump’s Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke —a Montana native who arrived at his first day of work in Washington, D.C., on horseback—says he empathizes with ranchers. The Trump administration plans to lessen some restrictions on public lands that could restore access for ranchers.

Ranching “is a tradition worth protecting,” Mr. Zinke said in an interview.

Even those who support Mr. Zinke fear the recent moves aren’t enough to reverse the long decline of an American tradition gaining momentum as more cowboys quit.

Since 1979, when the environmental movement kicked into gear, the number of ranchers permitted on Bureau of Land Management-owned lands fell from about 22,000 with 12 million permitted livestock, mostly cows, to 18,000 ranchers with about seven million livestock, according to the most recent government estimates, from 2016.

The number of ranchers and cows on public lands continued to drop even as cattle prices stabilized and rose.

Environmental groups opposed to this type of grazing are glad to see ranching decline on public lands. They say Western ranchers have long taken advantage of a system that gave them access to publicly owned land at cut-rate prices. Over the years, critics have called the practice “welfare ranching.”

The Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service, arms of the federal government that handle grazing contracts, charge a 2018 monthly grazing fee of $1.41 per head, compared with up to $20 on private land.

The fees don’t include fences, stock ponds and other grazing infrastructure ranchers say they are often required to maintain.

Environmentalists say the animals trample vegetation and foul streams, marring public land that belongs to all Americans.

“Livestock grazing is like a slow death of the land and wildlife by cancer,” said Erik Molvar, executive director of Western Watersheds Project, an anti-grazing group based in Hailey, Idaho. “It’s easy to get wrapped up in the nostalgia of a few generations of ranching, but really it’s a pretty recent kind of way to make a living.”

America’s Western plains and valleys were once endless pastures for ranchers, the backdrop of an industry wrapped in romance and mythology. But many small ranchers never owned most of the land where their cattle grazed.

Under a setup formalized over the past century, they struck deals with the government to pay for access to federally owned land to feed their herds. The percentage of land owned by the federal government varies widely among states, with Western states near the top.

In Nevada, the federal government owns 79.6% of the state, according to a 2015 Congressional Research Service report. By comparison, the federal government owns 1.8% of Texas.

The system meant ranchers could run herds over huge tracts of public land and didn’t have to pay to buy and ship as much feed. When one field was partially consumed, they would simply move on.

The government decided how many cows could graze on public land, and how much they could consume—down to the number of inches on a blade of grass. Still, the deals allowed small ranchers to survive, even as the cattle industry consolidated into giant operations.

The number of cattle nationally, most of it on private land, is about 95 million, up only slightly from 60 years ago. About a 10th of the nation’s beef cows spend some time grazing on public lands, according to estimates by the Public Lands Council, a trade group for public-lands ranchers. Some environmentalists say the number is far lower.

Competition from private ranching operations and years of severe drought in the West are major pressures on small public-lands ranchers. Ranchers say they also face a threat from government restrictions.

“It is the lack of flexibility by the federal government that is 50% why the ranchers go out of business,” said J.J. Goicoechea, Nevada’s state veterinarian and a fourth-generation cattle rancher from Eureka, Nev. “I just hope to hell my daughters can continue doing this.”

Ron Cerri, whose 400 cows roam over 70,000 acres of federal public lands in northern Nevada, said he and other ranchers spent 15 years appealing a proposal by forest managers to restrict the amount of plants a cow could eat, such as from 50% to 25% of a stalk of grass.

After they paid up to $500,000 in legal and consulting fees, he said, the ranchers won an administrative appeal within the agency to redo the forage rules in a way they hope will be less restrictive.

“Whenever we deal with [federal agencies], we give up something,” Mr. Cerri, 64, said while he and other cowboys took a lunch break from branding calves.

Lyman Youngberg, a Nevada rancher, threw in the towel two years ago. Mr. Youngberg, 79, said he decided to sell a ranch he bought in 1993 rather than pass it down to his adult children.

“I was getting wore out from all the BS from these agencies,” said Mr. Youngberg, nursing a beer in the Say When Casino in McDermitt, Nev.

Conflicts over grazing are rooted in the way the West was settled. The federal government offered homesteading stakes, as well as rights to resources including water. With beef prices high after the Civil War, many homesteaders turned to ranching.

The government kept most of the land, creating a setup where residents could live on private property but go into public areas for work.

Congress passed tougher environmental laws in the 1970s. Presidents and Congress set aside large areas in National Parks and Monuments to preserve land for future generations. In more recent years, administrations have tightened access and restrictions on ranchers.

“They are sharing the land in more ways than they did in the ’50s,” said Eric Herzik, professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Reno. “They feel it’s over-regulated and that they should own the land, but they don’t own the land.”

From his ranch in Nevada, Mr. Hage has seen decades of change, a saga continuing through today. He came here as a child in 1978, when his late father, Wayne Hage, moved the family from a California ranch to one nestled in a high desert valley between two mountain ranges, about halfway between Las Vegas and Reno.

The family’s Pine Creek Ranch was 7,000 private acres, with nearly year-round access to 750,000 more on national forest and other public lands.

Under a 10-year grazing contract, the elder Mr. Hage and his then wife, Jean, paid between $29,099 and $49,792 in fees annually to the federal agencies.

“Dad had talked about these open-range ranches where all the work is done on horseback,” said Ramona Hage Morrison, the elder Mr. Hage’s daughter. “It was a dream for my mom and dad as a place to raise their children.”

The Hages’ 2,000 cows grazed on a sage-covered valley framed by mountains rising nearly a mile into the sky. The Hages and other hands would spend their days checking up on cattle and mending fence posts.

“Believe me there is nothing more free feeling than when you saddle up a great big powerful horse in the morning, and you turn him loose and you’ve got the entire country that you can go on and at your beck and call,” said the younger Mr. Hage, wearing a Stetson as he sat in a corral.

The government’s legal feud with the Hages began years ago when federal managers of the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest said the family’s herd was straying into unauthorized areas on public land.

The government also accused the Hages of failing to maintain hundreds of miles of livestock control fences in the backcountry.

The Hages blamed a reintroduction of elk in the area for breaking the fences. The family said the government forced them to graze cattle in areas with less grass, instead of lush, restricted fields.

In one summer grazing season in 1983, forest officials sent 40 certified notices of violations and made 70 visits to the ranch to hand deliver more—including one for a missing fence staple, according to court records. A rider had to travel by horseback 20 miles round-trip to replace the staple, according to the documents.

In 1990, rangers threatened to impound the Hages’ cattle for repeated encroachments into a newly designated no-grazing zone. The elder Mr. Hage argued it was too hard to police cows from crossing from a permitted area because there was no fence along a 25-mile boundary.

Soon after, forest officials impounded about 100 of the Hages’ cattle and sold them after they repeatedly entered a restricted area. Under grazing regulations, federal officials can impound livestock that damages public lands.

The younger Mr. Hage, then 16, remembers his dad rounding up all 2,000 of his cows before the government could impound any more.

The Hages filed suit with the U.S. Court of Federal Claims in Washington, D.C., in 1991, alleging their rights to water and grazing land had been taken, and demanding compensation.

In court documents, the government argued in part that the Hages failed to seek proper permits, and that their cows had access to water. In 1991, the government canceled the Hages’ grazing permit.

Gloria Flora, who was the U.S. Forest Service supervisor in Nevada in the late 1990s, said the fundamental problem for the Hages and other ranchers there has been the state’s aridness.

“It’s not grazing land; that’s the whole problem,” said Ms. Flora, who left the agency in 1999 and now runs an environmental nonprofit in eastern Washington. “The rangelands are in dry areas where it’s almost impossible to graze cattle and not trample the grass—especially when you only have a few places that have water.”

In 2002, U.S. Court of Federal Claims Judge Loren Smith delivered an initial ruling that the family did have water and grazing rights to the land. The Hages began grazing cows on the public range again—despite not having permits, after concluding they needed to prevent abandonment of their water rights.

Amid the court battles, the elder Mr. Hage’s first wife, Jean, died from a stroke at age 54. Her husband died 10 years later in 2006 at age 69 from bone cancer, as he awaited a final ruling on the case.

The stress of the fight “cost my sister her life and Wayne most definitely his life,” said Herb Nichols, an investment banker from Reno and Mrs. Hage’s brother.

The younger Mr. Hage took on his parents’ ranch, and court battle.

The next year, in 2007, the government filed a trespassing suit against him and his parents’ estate in U.S. District Court in Reno.

In 2010, the Hages scored a major victory: Judge Smith of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims in Washington awarded the family $14 million after agreeing their rights to water and grazing had been wrongly rescinded by the government under the terms of their lease deal.

The government appealed. Two years later, in 2012, an appeals court overturned the Hages’ $14 million award.

A judge in the government’s trespassing case against the family found the Hages guilty in February of last year, and ordered them to clear the cows off the public land, and pay a fine of $580,000. That ruling is on appeal.

Meanwhile, the Hages appealed the water and grazing rights case to the U.S. Supreme Court. The court declined to hear a final procedural challenge in November.

That triggered foreclosure proceedings on the ranch’s $2 million loan. The family is packing up and leaving the ranch. Mr. Hage has moved his cows to leased pastures in another part of the state.

By the end of April, he plans to vacate the single-story ranch house—one of only two in a 25-mile long valley—that he shares with his wife, Yelena, and their two young sons and daughter.

Mr. Hage hasn’t decided where his family will go, but says his battle with the government is over.

“We don’t have the means to fight them anymore,” he said.