An update on Nevada scofflaw Cliven Bundy

The rancher still has influence in some circles, and has seen zero repercussions for trespass cattle and unpaid fees.

 

It’s been almost a year since the standoff between Bureau of Land Management officials and rancher scofflaw Cliven Bundy. In that time, Bundy has gone from being just a rancher who wouldn’t pay his fees, to a lasting political figure that the far-right anti-federal government set continues to coalesce around.    

Last April, BLM rounded up 300 of Bundy’s cattle in southern Nevada’s Clark County, because the livestock were trespassing on public land and had been doing so, on and off, for decades. Bundy owed taxpayers some $1 million in unpaid grazing fees and fines, which to this day he has not settled. In response to the impoundment, anti-federal ideologues and members of militia groups from surrounding states gathered near the Bundy ranch to support his protest of the cattle seizure and his beliefs that the BLM had no authority over where he could graze his cattle. An estimated 300 people congregated at the side of the road near the Bunkerville grazing allotment and at least one militia group member aimed a rifle at the federal agents below. Fearing an escalation to violence, the government officials aborted their mission—they released the cattle and left.

Cliven Bundy speaking at a July 2014 forum hosted by the American Academy for Constitutional Education (AAFCE) at the Burke Basic School in Mesa, Arizona. Photo by Flickr user Gage Skidmore.
Much ink has been spilled over whether the BLM should have waited for a better time for the impoundment or simply put its foot down years ago; and whether the sheriff’s department promised to help with security during the impoundment, but failed to show up, as BLM officials have said. It’s clear that Bundy was, and still is, breaking federal law, which states that BLM controls where ranchers can and cannot graze on public land it manages.

By all accounts, Bundy still has not been charged for the trespassing cattle or the unpaid fines. Bundy told me in an email that his cattle have “all returned back to their normal grazing habitat”—i.e., where the BLM restricts grazing in part because it’s sensitive desert tortoise habitat. The BLM would not confirm or deny that, nor would the agency comment on whether security has been increased or procedures have changed in Nevada, or agency-wide as a result of the standoff, except to say that they “implement routine security measures at many public meetings.”

Environmental groups are urging the feds not to let Bundy off the hook. On Feb. 26, the Center for Biological Diversity wrote a public letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder imploring them to act on the Bundy case and report progress toward resolving it. In a budget hearing last week, Jewell said that “any kind of investigation of federal crimes that have been committed” are in the hands of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Justice. (The FBI reportedly opened an investigation last year over possible threats to law enforcement officers and illegal weapons, but the agency declined to comment for this story.) The nonprofit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), says that the DOJ is likely sitting on the case. But Natalie Collins, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney in Nevada, said that she cannot confirm or deny whether the Department of Justice has an open case on Bundy, and the BLM has remained mum as well.

But since the standoff last April, the Clark County rancher hasn’t just hunkered down to wait and see what the feds will do. He described to HCN over e-mail that the standoff has given him “a wider opportunity to speak and more influence.” He and his close supporters have continued to voice their political views about the federal government, which have bled into the local process to update a BLM resource management plan for southern Nevada.

In December, Bundy declared at a Nye County Commissioners meeting (which borders his home county) that the federal government has no authority and urged locals to cease engagement with the BLM altogether. Commissioner Dan Schinhofen recalls that Ammon Bundy, son of Cliven, said at the meeting that if commissioners even communicated with the federal agency, they should be thrown out of office. According to the Pahrump Valley Times, Cliven Bundy helped spur the passage of an anti-BLM resolution in Nye County. Commissioner Donna Cox, who shares some similar views with the Bundys, proposed the resolution to categorically say "no” to the BLM.

“I think she envisioned that (we would) not further work on the resource management plan and (the BLM) would just run away and go hide,” Schinhofen told me. “But (the BLM’s) going to do their RMP process no matter what. Their bosses are telling them to do it.”

Despite the lingering support for Bundy in some corners, for Schinhofen and at least one other commissioner, the Bundys lean too far right. “Supposedly I'm now the BLM apologist,” Schinhofen says. But in Nye County, that isn’t saying much. He and other commissioners are part of an effort to transfer federal public lands to state control—a local manifestation of a larger movement afoot, currently centered in Utah. They don’t want BLM controlling their recreation areas and grazing allotments, but at least they’re trying to make change through laws that already exist, he sayswriting a proposal to reverse them, and working with the agency on things like resource management plans in the meantime.

Bundy's anti-federal influence continues to be inspiring to at least a few hundred people in Schinhofen’s area and likely many more beyond. A November 2014 BLM public meeting in Pahrump, Nevada, to discuss the proposed management plan (the same one that prompted some commissioners to resolve to say "no" to the BLM) was canceled after a hundred or so people showed up to protest—too many to fit into the community hall the meeting was scheduled for. According to commissioner Lorinda Wichman, Bundy supporters had sent an email blast to locals, encouraging them to show up to “help save our right to use our public lands,” to protest any potential BLM “retaliation of the Bundy family,” (which some Bundyites have claimed is one of the goals of the resource management plan) and calling the BLM the “Bureau of Land Grabbing Maggots.”

And every day that passes without a federal government move to prosecute Bundy is a day that he and his followers are emboldened. “We have not been bothered by nor have we even seen a US government licensed vehicle of any kind on the Bundy Ranch or the northeast portion of Clark County,” Bundy said in his email, referring to the last 11 months. “Cattle prices are good and green grass is growing!”

Tay Wiles is the online editor of High Country News.