Rancher vs the BLM: A 20-year standoff ends with tense roundup

‘As far as I’m concerned,’ Cliven Bundy says, ‘the BLM don’t exist.’

 

Rancher Cliven Bundy claims he fired the Bureau of Land Management about 20 years ago.

“When I decided that I was paying grazing fees for somebody to manage me out of business, I said, ‘Hell no,’ ” Bundy says in a video of a presentation he gave in February. “And what did I tell them? I no longer need your service as a manager over my ranch, and I’m not going to pay you for that no more.”

“As far as I’m concerned,” he adds, “the BLM don’t exist.” The federal government might as well not, either.

CattlenearHorseSpringApril2010.jpg
Some of Cliven Bundy's cattle graze nearby a spring in Gold Butte, an area completely closed to grazing. Photo courtesy of Rob Mrowka.

Despite a running tab of court injunctions, complaints and conservation conflicts involving the BLM, the National Park Service, Clark County and environmental groups, and nearly $1 million in fines, Bundy has continued to run cattle on the federally-owned Bunkerville Allotment in the southern tip of Nevada, about 100 miles from Las Vegas. Over the years, the Department of Justice has more than once canceled BLM plans to round up the trespass cattle after blatant threats of violence from Bundy and his supporters, says Alan O’Neill, retired superintendent of the Lake Mead National Recreation Area adjacent to the allotment. The sieges at Ruby Ridge and Waco that fueled the ‘90s anti-government militia movement were fresh, he explains. “We were trying everything we could to resolve the issue peacefully. But he got more and more recalcitrant.”

This week, though, the BLM finally began rounding up Bundy’s estimated 900 cattle from a 1,200 square-mile area, putting an end to the illegal grazing once and for all.  The agency isn’t saying exactly why now is the time to act; O’Neill suspects that the threat of lawsuit from the Center for Biological Diversity against the local and federal government for not implementing existing court orders may have forced the agency’s hand.

The situation quickly escalated. One of Bundy’s sons was arrested Sunday for refusing to stay off the lands BLM has closed during the cattle roundup.  Videos from Wednesday show Bundy family members and supporters, including out-of-state militia members, angrily cursing and gesturing at BLM agents attempting to contain them within a “First Amendment Area” set up for protesting. More out-of-state militia members claim to be on the way, saying “they’re going in with force.” While Gov. Brian Sandoval disapproves of BLM’s handling of the situation, others applauded the agency for showing restraint in the face of threats. It was Bundy’s own promise to “be more physical” with the BLM during the impoundment operation, after all, that led the agency to set up strict public protest areas and press policies in the first place. “This is incendiary stuff,” former Nevada Gov. Richard Bryan said on a Nevada news show Thursday, expressing fear of more violence on the way. “Some of these folks are frankly half a bubble off...People really believe that the federal government has no jurisdiction over anything.”

ScenicGBbyRoib.jpg
The Gold Butte area has been preserved as critical desert tortoise habitat, in large part to allow for development in nearby Las Vegas. Photo courtesy of Rob Mrowka.

If you believe in the authority of the federal government over public lands – established unequivocally in the U.S. Constitution – there is ample justification for the impoundment. In terms of environmental destruction alone, the BLM cites how Bundy’s cows have contaminated streams and springs, trampled acres of fragile desert soils and vegetation, and two instances of unauthorized reservoir construction, among other damages. Affected wildlife includes the rare relict leopard frog and the desert tortoise, at the crux of local conservation efforts.

It was the tortoise that kicked off the saga in 1993, when the BLM modified the terms of Bundy’s Bunkerville grazing allotment to protect the animal after it was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Bundy refused to comply with the new terms, so the BLM cancelled his permit to no effect. In 1997, Clark County purchased all active grazing permits in the area in accordance with the new federal Desert Tortoise Recovery Plan and the county’s own Desert Conservation Program, offering Bundy compensation for water rights and range improvements on his former allotment. Bundy rejected the offer. In 1999, the Nevada District Court permanently banned Bundy from grazing cattle in the area, ordering him to remove them or face a $200 penalty per cow per day. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the injunction. Between 2008 and 2011, the BLM cancelled Bundy’s remaining range improvement authorizations. In 2011 Bundy ignored several court orders, including a notice of impoundment. Over the next two years, the BLM aerially counted first 903, then 729, then 600, then 750 head of cattle, nearly all suspected to belong to Bundy, on land closed to grazing.

Nevada – with the highest percent of federal land of any state – has long been a hotbed of antifederal resentment, especially among cattle ranchers. But even in that universe, the Bundy scenario is extreme among public land ranching battles, says Greta Anderson, deputy director of the Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit that monitors grazing on Western public lands. “I just hope no one gets hurt, and I hope the cows go off and stay off.”

Interestingly, Nevada political commentator Hugh Jackson points out that the Nevada Cattlemen’s Association, and “self-described limited government Republicans” like Senator Dean Heller and Representatives Joe Heck and Mark Amodei have stayed conspicuously silent on the Bundy fight. Bundy’s support instead comes from a “small but loud chorus” of radical right-wingers. It may be that Bundy’s rallying cry that he is the “Last Man Standing” is more literally true than he or his supporters would care to admit.

Still, the impoundment isn’t over yet, and supporters and opponents continue to take sides; the longterm political implications of the spat are also unclear, and will likely depend on the BLM keeping as cool a head as possible during the tense proceedings. As Rob Mrowka, Las Vegas office of the Center for Biological Diversity senior scientist who has endured threats from Bundy and his supporters via email, voicemail and Twitter, says, “Nobody wants a martyr.”

Christi Turner is an editorial intern at High Country News. She tweets @christi_mada.

High Country News Classifieds
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Communications and Outreach Associate Position Opening: www.westernlaw.org/communications-outreach-associate ************************************************* Location: Western U.S., ideally in one of WELC's existing office locations (Santa Fe or Taos, NM, Helena,...
  • OFFICE ADMINISTRATOR AND BOOKKEEPER
    Posted: July 19, 2021 Application deadline: August 27 or until position is filled. Western Colorado Alliance for Community Action is seeking a fulltime Office Administrator...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Posted: July 15, 2021 Application deadline: August 21, 2021 or until position is filled Western Colorado Alliance for Community Action is seeking three full time...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, HIke the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • AUDIENCE ENGAGEMENT EDITOR
    High Country News (HCN) seeks an audience editor to attract and acquire new audiences and deepen engagement with them - in our newsletters, on our...
  • COMMUNITY MARKETER
    High Country News (HCN) is looking for a Community Marketer to build and strengthen relationships between HCN and other organizations and individuals, with the aim...
  • FINANCE & OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Job Announcement: Finance and Operations Manager Announcement date: July 16, 2021 Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and first review will begin: August...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement: Development Director Announcement date: July 16, 2021 Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and first review will begin: August 9, 2021...
  • HECHO POLICY AND ADVOCACY MANAGER
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • HECHO NEW MEXICO SENIOR FIELD COORDINATOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • IDAHO STATE DIRECTOR
    The Wilderness Society is seeking a full time Idaho State Director who will preferably be based in Boise, Idaho. This position is part of our...
  • CAUCASIAN OVCHARKA PUPPIES
    Strong loyal companions. Ready to protect your family and property. Proven against wolves and grizzlies. Imported bloodlines. Well socialized.
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    The Nature Conservancy in Alaska is dedicated to saving the lands and waters on which all life depends. For more than 30 years, TNC has...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY, CLIMATE AND ENERGY PROGRAM
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING https://westernlaw.org/career-opportunity-climate-energy-staff-attorney/ ************************************************** Position Title: Climate and Energy Program Staff Attorney Reports to: Climate and Energy Program Director Location: Helena, Montana; other...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY, WILDLANDS AND WILDLIFE PROGRAM
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING https://westernlaw.org/career-opportunity-wildlands-staff-attorney/ ************************************************** Position Title: Wildlands and Wildlife Program Staff Attorney Reports to: Wildlands and Wildlife Program Director Location: Portland or Eugene,...
  • DISCOUNT SOLAR PANELS
    New w/25 year warranty. Shipped anywhere in the lower 48. Minimum order of 10 units. Call, text or email for current prices. .50-.80/ watt
  • SWEET MOUNTAIN HOME
    3.8 acres in pine and fir forest on a year round creek. Custom home, 2x6 framing, radiant heat, wrap around decks and established berry patch....
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • SPRING-FED PARCELS ON THE UPPER SAC RIVER
    Adjacent parcels above the Upper Sacramento river, near Dunsmuir. The smaller is just under 3 acres, with the larger at just under 15 acres. Multiple...