A look at Gold Butte, Nevada, two years after the Bundy standoff

Surveyors found illegal cattle grazing, defaced petroglyphs and ditch-digging.

 

In June 2015, for the first time since federal officers confronted Cliven Bundy and militia members over Bundy’s illegal grazing in 2014, the Bureau of Land Management sent a survey crew to the Gold Butte area near Bunkerville, Nevada. The three surveyors from the Great Basin Institute were there to inventory springs, cattle troughs and seeps. According to contemporary news reports, they encountered Cliven Bundy and his son, Ryan Bundy, who spoke with them briefly and asked what they were doing. Later that night, as the surveyors were getting into their tents, a vehicle lit up the camp with its headlights as it drove by, and shortly afterward, three gunshots rang out nearby. An hour later, they heard three more shots. The surveyors packed up in the dark, left and did not come back. Cliven Bundy told reporters he had not fired the shots, and the BLM kept out of Gold Butte.

Since the standoff at Bunkerville, Cliven Bundy’s roughly 1,000 cattle have remained at large. Nor has the rancher paid the more than $1 million he owes in grazing fees and fines. Cliven Bundy hasn’t escaped altogether, though: In February, he was arrested en route to support his sons’ armed occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Oregon. He is now behind bars awaiting trial in 2017. But in other respects, Bundy got what he wanted: His cattle still graze for free on Gold Butte, just as they have done for the past two decades, despite a 1999 ban, and there was little to no federal oversight for two years. 

bullets-in-mud-wash-petroglyphs_zoomin_photo-by
Bullet holes on petroglyphs in Gold Butte.
Justin McAffee/Courtesy of Friends of Gold Butte

In June, one year after the survey crew retreated, BLM workers finally returned to Gold Butte. “It was not a safe place for (federal workers) to be,” says Jaina Moan, executive director of Friends of Gold Butte, a group that advocates for and provides education about the 350,000-acre swath of BLM-managed desert. 

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., an outspoken critic who has called Cliven and his sons domestic terrorists, has been blunt about the link between the militia atmosphere created by the Bundys and the continuing threats to BLM workers. “Because of trouble caused by the Bundys and their pals, the federal employees tasked with safely guarding these antiquities were prevented from doing their jobs,” Reid said on the Senate floor in April. “These employees have been under constant physical and mental threat for doing what the American people have tasked them to do.” Nationwide, threats against BLM employees shot up 87 percent during 2015, and by 60 percent against U.S. Fish and Wildlife employees, according to a report by the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

The absence of federal workers did not go unnoticed. Friends of Gold Butte published a report in August detailing the damage inflicted on the area in the last two years, as well as documenting some historic bullet-hole damage. Graffiti and bullet holes riddle the petroglyphs and red sandstone, signs have been removed, and the area is marred by off-road tire tracks and trash. Twenty-two miles of illegal irrigation have been trenched through the desert, and a chopped-down Joshua tree was left to rot. The BLM is continuing to assess the situation, and so far staffers can’t say how much the illegal irrigation trenching and vehicle incursions have affected local wildlife populations. “Once this happens, it persists through time,” Moan says of the graffiti and general disregard for the area by visitors.

The Gold Butte area suffered vandalism after the Bureau of Land Management pulled out of the area.
David Bly/Courtesy of Friends of Gold Butte

The damage has given advocates even more reason to fight for a national monument designation, something Friends of Gold Butte and the nearby Moapa Band of Paiutes have been advocating for years. The area is currently designated as an area of critical environmental concern because it provides habitat for the threatened Mojave desert tortoise and for desert bighorn sheep. It’s also of cultural significance to the Moapa Band of Paiutes, whose ancestors created the ancient petroglyphs. The area was included within their reservation boundaries in 1873, and then cut out years later. Making Gold Butte a national monument would secure the Moapa’s heritage sites from further destruction, former tribal chairman William Anderson says.

But the window of opportunity is starting to narrow. President Barack Obama, who has created 25 national monuments during his tenure, has just a few months left in office to designate Gold Butte, and the proposal’s most prominent congressional ally, Sen. Reid, is retiring amid a heated race for his seat.

William Anderson links the fight to protect Gold Butte with a national monument to other struggles over tribal sovereignty. He sees the Bears Ears national monument struggle in Utah, Oak Flats mining of Apache heritage sites in Arizona and the current protests at Standing Rock by Sioux in North Dakota as similar examples of tribes fighting to preserve their culture.

“For us, we know that what we're doing here is something that needs to be done across the country,” Anderson says. “To protect public lands.”

Anna V. Smith is an editorial intern at High Country News. She tweets

High Country News Classifieds
  • DIRECTOR, ENERGY AND LANDSCAPE CONSERVATION
    The National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) seeks a director to lead a nationwide program focused on the protection of U.S. national parks from energy development...
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Crested Butte Land Trust seeks a development director to lead its fundraising efforts. Remote and unspoiled, Crested Butte is located in one of the Rockies...
  • PRICE REDUCED $94,300 - LOT SOUTH OF MONTROSE
    5-Acre Home Site, Great Views with Spectacular Sunsets From a South Facing Home Site. Excellent for Passive Solar Design. Covenants, No HOA. Keller Williams Co....
  • CHARMING HOME/FARM NEAR CLIFF, NM
    3 bed/2 bath, detached strawbale building. 11.7 acres, barn, corrals, fenced. Wells, solar panels, greenhouses. Paved access. 575-535-2568.
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    WildEarth Guardians seeks two public interest-focused staff attorneys with a minimum of 5 years experience to join our legal team. Experience with at least some...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF NEW MEXICO WILDLIFE FEDERATION
    The New Mexico Wildlife Federation is seeking an Executive Director, a visionary leader who is passionate about public lands, dedicated to executing an innovative strategic...
  • ARAVAIPA LAND STEWARD
    The Aravaipa Land Steward coordinates preserve stewardship work and general operations including maintenance and general preserve management. Implements preserve management plans, which may include species...
  • VP OF DEVELOPMENT
    seeks a talented and dynamic development professional, with a passion for protecting our natural environment, to lead our development and fundraising team.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Native American Fish and Wildlife Society seeks an Executive Director in Denver, CO to serve as the Chief Administrator of the national Native American...
  • DEVELOPMENT ASSISTANT
    High Country News seeks a development assistant to assist with fundraising campaigns. HCN is an award-winning, national news magazine. Strong candidates will have experience administering...
  • LAND ACQUISTIONS SPECIALIST - RENEWABLE ENERGY
    Energiekontor US seeks experienced local candidate, must reside in western South Dakota. Send resume and cover letter to: [email protected]
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Seeking passionate full-time Executive to lead the oldest non-profit organization in Idaho. Must have knowledge of environmental issues, excellent organizational, verbal presentation and written skills,...
  • CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    Carbondale based public lands advocate, Wilderness Workshop, seeks a Conservation Director to help direct and shape the future of public land conservation on the West...
  • TROUT UNLIMITED BIGHORN RIVER BASIN PROJECT MANAGER
    The Bighorn River Basin Project Manager identifies and implements projects to improve streamflows, restore stream and riparian habitat, improve fish passage and rehabilitate or replace...
  • INTERNET-BASED BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Dream of owning your own business, being your own boss, working from home ... this is the one. 928-380-6570, www.testshop.com. More info at https://bit.ly/2Kgi340.
  • TRIPLEX .8 ACRE KANAB, UT
    Create a base in the center of Southern Utah's Grand Circle of National Parks. Multiple residential property with three established rental units and zoning latitude...
  • LIGHTWEIGHT FLY ROD CASES
    4 standard or custom lengths. Rugged protection for backpacking. Affordable pricing.
  • FIVE-ACRE VIEW LOT WITH WELL
    5 acres, well. Abuts Carson NF; hike fish ski; deer turkey elk.
  • GILA NATIONAL FOREST
    9+ acre inholding. Passive solar strawbale off the grid and next to the Continental Divide Trail in ponderosa pine/doug fir forest at 7400.