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.

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.”

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.

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