Desert tortoise militia occupies Bundy Ranch

Endangered reptiles stage heavily armored takeover of cattleman’s property.


Citing grievous damage to their homeland, a militia composed of endangered desert tortoises has commenced a hostile occupation of Cliven Bundy’s ranch in southeastern Nevada. The heavily armed reptiles have vowed to remain until the scofflaw rancher recognizes their right to exist — however long that takes.

“This compound has been a symbol of tyranny and unconstitutional oppression for far too long,” said desert tortoise Lester Agassiz, the occupation’s self-proclaimed leader, at a Friday press conference. “Mr. Bundy’s cows have eaten our forage, defecated in our springs, and generally run roughshod over our habitat, all while violating the laws of the United States. It’s time for us to stand with desert fauna everywhere against this agent of injustice.”

Agassiz spoke at a makeshift camp on the outskirts of Bundy Ranch, where around half the Southwest’s estimated 100,000 desert tortoises have amassed this week to protest illegal ranching. “This occupation is not some snap decision,” Agassiz said as he munched on some shrubs. “We’ve been planning it ever since the whole Bundy issue started. We just don’t move very quickly, what with the whole ‘being tortoises’ thing.

“But as a wise man once said,” Agassiz added, “slow and steady wins the race.”

To understand the motivation of the Tortoise Rebellion, travel back to 1993, the year the Bureau of Land Management modified Cliven Bundy’s Bunkerville grazing allotment to protect the threatened reptiles. Bundy refused to withdraw his cattle or pay grazing fees, and a two-decade legal battle ensued. The tussle turned ugly in 2014, when a platoon of Bundy’s armed supporters faced off against the BLM after the federal government tried to remove some 900 cows. The BLM ultimately caved.

That was merely the saga’s beginning. In January 2016, a band of latter-day sagebrush rebels led by Ammon Bundy, Cliven’s son, occupied Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon to protest perceived governmental overreach. To many Bundyites, the very notion of federal land ownership is an abomination. “It says in Article 1, Section 8, Clause 17, that the federal government has no right to own any of these lands,” one militia member told High Country News. “If we don’t abide by the Constitution, which limits what the federal government can do, then we have no rule of law, we have no country,” he said.

Speaking outside Bundy Ranch, however, Agassiz strongly refuted those legal interpretations. “It’s like these people have never actually read the Enclave Clause or the Property Clause,” Agassiz complained, reaching into his shell to pull out a well-worn copy of the constitution. “And forget about the Endangered Species Act. I have a brain literally the size of a sunflower seed and I understand this stuff.”

Desert tortoise militia leader Lester Agassiz armed and en route to the Bundy Ranch.
Laura Patterson/CC Flickr and Flickr

Though the Bundys’ partisans have repeatedly called on the federal government to “return” land to ranchers, noted tortoise scholar Scutes Shelby pointed out that such demands rely on a fundamentally short-term comprehension of history. “The Bundys have been here for, what, a century?” Shelby asked. “Our clan has been occupying the Mojave Desert since before it was a desert. We were here when Cliven’s ancestors were still Australopithecus. So who has rights to this land, really?”

Added Shelby: “Now, if it was a member of the Moapa band of Paiutes talking, maybe we could give a little ground. But for a white guy? No way.”

The Tortoise Rebellion has thus far pursued a non-violent course of action. Using their powerful digging claws, the cold-blooded revolutionaries have excavated an elaborate series of earthworks surrounding the Bundy property, making it essentially impossible for vehicles to come or go without busting an axle. Still, the rebels say they’re prepared to deploy force, and have stockpiled weapons from 12-gauge shotguns to AR-15s. “We’re ready to use our Second Amendment rights to defend our homeland,” said Buddy Gopherus, among the leaders of the tortoise militants. “‘Course, it ain’t easy holdin’ firearms when you got no hands... but I could outshoot one of them Bundy boys any day, thumbs or no.”   

Though the current occupation is tortoise-led, a menagerie of other species has expressed solidarity with Agassiz’s band. Many of the Southwest’s 1,000 remaining relict leopard frogs arrived at the gathering Friday, as did an Oregon-based great blue heron, who attended on behalf of the Malheur Association of Loons, Larks, Avocets, Rails and Ducks (MALLARD).

Read more of our Sagebrush Rebellion coverage here

“Right now MALLARD’s members are being eaten out of house and home by invasive carp, and just when the feds finally put together a plan to improve the situation, these insurgents show up and threaten the project,” the heron stated. “We join our shelled brethren in deploring such rank anthropocentrism, and we call upon Bundy and his supporters to embrace a Leopoldan land ethic by granting us an equal place in the biotic community.” 

The reptilian rebels’ demands are straightforward: a complete cessation of grazing on Bundy’s Bunkerville allotment. They’ve vowed to remain at the ranch indefinitely. “Our great advantage is that our requirements are quite minimal,” Agassiz told the assembled press. “We need water like, what, once a month? We live up to 80 years old, so we’re in it for the long haul. Unless it gets cloudy. Clouds are always a bummer for ectotherms.”

Cliven Bundy was not available for comment.

Ben Goldfarb is a correspondent for High Country News. 

Feature photo by Nathan Rupert/CC Flickr.

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