LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — Nevada’s ranching industry is dwindling, in part, because of a brutal and persistent drought but also because of competition from an unlikely source — a public agency. Veteran ranchers in Nevada say they are being ground to dust in multiple ways by a rival operation that happens to be owned by the Southern Nevada Water Authority.
Veteran sheep rancher Hank Vogler has his hands full. It’s shearing day on the ranch when a traveling team of razor-wielding pros sets up shop operating with assembly-line precision on a long line of nervous sheep. Each gets clipped, shaved, and booted out of a chute, slightly stunned but OK.
Huge blocks stuffed with high-quality wool stacked up to form a massive wall around the edges of the operation—the harvest of a full year of strenuous work in a harsh environment.
Nevada has been sheep country since the 1880s, but Vogler knows he’s one of the last stockmen standing, “we could hold our convention about all of us, or in a phone booth,” Vogler told 8 News Now’s I-Team.
In a good year, Vogler’s profit margin is slim. A 20-year drought has brutalized western ranchers and farmers. Predators take a chunk out of the herd each year. And the foreign-born herders who sleep out on the range with the sheep for months face more challenging immigration barriers than ever. But the biggest threat to his survival these days, Vogler said, is his neighbor — a big guy on the block, a sprawling ranching operation owned and operated by the SNWA.
“This is what I spent my entire life trying to do, and now I’m being shoved out of business, pushed aside, destroyed, my entire life savings is going down the crapper,” Vogler said.
For Vogler, it’s been death by 1000 cuts over the past few years. He was one of the most outspoken opponents of SNWA’s plan to siphon billions of gallons of groundwater from rural Nevada via a pipeline to Las Vegas.
In 2007 and 2008, the SNWA paid $79 million to buy up thousands of acres of surrounding ranches, many times their market value back then, to serve as anchor properties for the so-called water grab. The multi-billion-dollar boondoggle was formally shelved a few years ago, but the SNWA has held on to the ranches and has spent millions of public dollars to raise cattle and sheep.
The ranch manager has had multiple confrontations with his neighbors. “He knew nothing about sheep,” Vogler said and adds his men have been threatened, his equipment vandalized, and his water rights challenged. More recently, he was charged with trespassing his sheep on grazing land he has used for decades.
The Bureau of Land Management, which he alleges does SNWA’s bidding, offered to let him off the hook if he pleaded guilty, but Vogler saw it as a trap and is fighting back in court against an opponent who has deep pockets of public money. Every court motion costs him thousands of dollars, mere chump change to the other guys.
“I just paid a law bill for last month that was $15,000 for one lawyer, and now I have two; they’re just dragging me down by my guts until I go broke,” Vogler claims.
Vogler doesn’t think the government should be in business competing against smaller private owners. He and his neighbors further argue the federal statutes are clear — no government entity can have federal grazing permits, but SNWA does.
Kena Gloeckner, another Nevada rancher whose family has lived on the same Lincoln County land since the 1860s, said she’s hanging on by her fingernails because the SNWA ranch commandeered the rangeland assigned to her herds for more than half a century, just took it over. She hired lawyers and won a costly battle. Then, SNWA started a federal appeals process that will freeze her out of her range for a decade or more, an expensive process the SNWA can afford but she cannot.
“Why are they running over everyone? Why are they having all these complaints and battles? The only answer we can come up with is that we’re in their way,” says Gloeckner.
“Maybe they want you to react with violence?” The I-Team asked Vogler. “Absolutely, then they can see what kind of people we have to deal with,” Vogler responded. “I’m not the brightest bulb in the drawer, but I’m not the dimmest bulb either. Don’t try and gaslight me,” he adds.
The SNWA is a government body competing against private enterprises. The I-Team previously asked how they can graze livestock on public land when federal regulations state that government agencies are barred from getting grazing permits. The SNWA said their lawyers advised them that they can. The SNWA declined to comment about Vogler’s allegations because the matter is in the courts.