With armed militia on one side, armed federal agents on the other, and about 900 cows in the middle, the Bureau of Land Management last Saturday called off its roundup of rancher Cliven Bundy’s “trespass cattle,” releasing the 300 or so cows it had already collected back into the desert.
BLM director Neil Kornze said that the agency made the call to protect both their agents and members of the public, after armed pro-Bundy supporters, many of them belonging to antigovernment militias, made a highly public show of force that heightened tensions during the multi-day standoff in Clark County’s Gold Butte region, 80 miles east of Las Vegas.
After 20 years of flouting the law, Bundy owes the BLM over $1 million in unpaid grazing fees and fines and has defied two court orders. Former agency insiders and legal experts say the feds may have little choice now but to round up Bundy himself. Some of the armed militia members who showed up at the scene could face legal action as well. Nonetheless, the outcome of the standoff may set back the BLM’s future dealings with other recalcitrant cattlemen. It likely damages the agency’s public image, and may encourage the idea that the agency will capitulate if threatened with force.
“In 40 years of working for BLM and with BLM, (the Bundy standoff) is the most extraordinary thing I’ve ever experienced,” said Mike Ford, former deputy director of the Nevada BLM. “All that people have seen on the national news – their vision of BLM right now is uniformed, gun-toting police officers.”
Rob Mrowka, senior scientist for the Center for Biological Diversity, said the recent events seem to have already emboldened other livestock producers with anti-government leanings to challenge federal law. Mrowka had heard through sources with the BLM that the agency has received calls in other states this week from ranchers wanting to renegotiate public lands grazing terms.
In terms of how to resolve the Bundy issue in particular, “I do think the agency and the government have some options available to them,” said Bob Abbey, who was Nevada state director of the BLM between 1997 and 2005, national BLM director between 2010 and 2012, and who dealt with Bundy on several occasions during his tenure. “One thing would be to meet with the judge and see if the judge were willing to issue a contempt of court citation against Mr. Bundy,” which would allow the agency to put him behind bars for ignoring court orders.
The Department of Justice is staying mum on the issue for now, while the BLM has said only that Bundy will be dealt with “administratively and judicially.” Sen. Harry Reid, De-Nev., who has called Bundy and his militia supporters “domestic terrorists,” said Thursday that a task force has been formed to address the issue. A sizable number of militia men are still camped near the Bundy ranch.
In retrospect, the agency’s handling of last week’s roundup could arguably have been better. Abbey suggested that having BLM agents on the ground specifically to address protesters’ concerns may have helped keep the crowds more tempered. That didn’t appear to happen last week, and the BLM hasn’t responded to requests for comment on how they dealt with the standoff.
Bundy’s “Last Man Standing” position and the standoff that ensued are extreme, but hardly new to the world of public lands ranching. Since at least the Sagebrush Rebellion days, a virtual war over the federal ownership and regulation of the West’s public lands has flared on and off. Some cases in point:
In 1991 Nevada rancher Wayne Hage claimed rights to roughly 752,000 acres of public land, in a case that stayed tangled in the courts for decades. In 1997, illegal cattle grazing in Colorado’s Dinosaur National Monument proved a bigger headache than fossil hunters. And in 2004, 70-year-old rancher Wally Klump refused to move 28 head of cattle from public land in the Arizona mountains. He sat in jail for a year in contempt of court until he finally agreed to remove his cattle.
These rebels and Bundy have their supporters, like those who are calling the rancher a hero victimized by federal overreach. Yet not all the likely backers are on Bundy’s side. The Nevada Cattlemen’s Association issued a statement Wednesday expressing sympathy for Bundy’s situation, lamenting federal regulations that favor the environment over grazing. But it also said, “We cannot advocate operating outside the law to solve problems.” Even ultraconservative pundit Glenn Beck has come out against the Bundy camp protesters, and points out, “There’s about 10 or 15 percent of the people (who support Bundy and) are talking about this online who don’t care what the facts are. They just want a fight.”
From both sides of the political spectrum, Bundy’s critics say the rancher’s professed staunch allegiance to the state is inconsistent with his refusal to recognize that the Nevada state constitution upholds federal ownership of the land his cattle graze.
And while the buzz about all this drones on, the long-term repercussions for Bundy and the BLM remain unclear. For now, the agency is still doing more listening than talking. The Southern Nevada BLM communications office voicemail politely asks callers to comment on the “trespass cattle” after the tone. “Rest assured,” the voice says, “that all messages are being listened to each night.”
Christi Turner is an editorial intern at High Country News. She tweets @christi_mada.