BUNKERVILLE, Nev. – A range war is unfolding in southeastern Nevada. Federal agencies are at odds with 67-year-old Bunkerville rancher Cliven Bundy. The Bureau of Land Management maintains that Bundy’s cattle have been trespassing on government-owned public lands ever since the he stopped paying grazing permit fees 20 years ago. For his part, the lifelong rancher has chosen not to recognize the authority of the BLM. He believes the agency to be unconstitutional and in violation of state sovereignty.
In 1998 the U.S. District Court, District of Nevada, ordered Bundy to remove his trespassing cattle from federal lands. A similar order was issued in July 2013 and gave the rancher 45 days to remove his cattle or face having them seized, impounded, and ultimately sold at auction. This order was followed by another one in October 2013, again giving Bundy 45 days to remove the offending cattle, but also adding that he couldn’t physically interfere with the impoundment action.
This whole affair started in 1993 when Bundy did not accept a grazing permit from the BLM that had been modified to protect the desert tortoise. As a result he stopped paying permit fees and the BLM canceled his grazing permit. A few years later, the BLM completely closed the Bunkerville grazing allotment and established it as desert tortoise habitat. As evidenced over the last two decades, however, Bundy’s cattle have continued to roam and graze on a range supposedly no longer open to his use.
BLM officials have described impounding Bundy’s cattle as a last resort to a long-standing problem.
BLM: Cattle rustling or resolving a longstanding issue?
“The BLM and (National) Park Service tried to resolve this matter over the 20 years,” said Kirsten Cannon, public affairs specialist with the BLM’s southern Nevada field office.
Last week the BLM and NPS announced it was temporarily closing off portions of Clark County to the public as it conducted impound operations within those areas. The total area covers 600,000 acres and is overseen by the BLM, NPS and Bureau of Reclamation. Impound operations began March 27. Aside from using its own manpower, the BLM has also contracted with private groups and individuals to assist in the roundup of the trespassing cattle. Once rounded up, the cattle will be taken out of state for auction.
Daily notice of area closures is supplied on a BLM website detailing the impoundment operation and the reasons behind it.
According to the website, negative impacts attributed to the cattle include incidents of private property damage, damage to natural and cultural resource sites, and funding and viability impacts as money to certain projects in the region has been put on hold until the cattle are removed.
Various environmental advocacy groups have also expressed their ire over the cattle and have demanded action from the BLM. One such group, the Center for Biological Diversity, threatened to sue the BLM over the agency’s inaction in the matter. The center claims that continued cattle grazing is destroying desert tortoise habitat.
In an effort to help protect the desert tortoise, Cannon said, grazing permits had been adjusted to prohibit grazing on federal land between March 1 and June 24. The modified permits were also renewed on a yearly basis. According to the Taylor Grazing Act, grazing permits can be issued for periods of no more than 10 years.
While the BLM observes seemingly universal grazing permit practices nationwide, Cannon said, individual districts can implement additional rules and regulations on grazing rights based on an area’s ecology. In the case of Clark County, they have to take the desert tortoise into consideration.
Cliven Bundy told the Las Vegas Review-Journal he doesn’t recognize the authority of the federal government – and the BLM by extension – over the land. Ryan Bundy, one of Cliven Bundy’s sons, reiterated that belief.
“Where in the Constitution does the BLM have any right to exist?” Ryan Bundy said. Hearing his argument is like receiving a civics lecture from the point-of-view of state’s right advocates in relation to public lands. “The land is supposed to be controlled by the government closest to the people,” he said.
Despite the state’s rights argument, Cannon said, as a federal agency, the BLM supersedes local and state law. The federal district court has also ruled the agency has jurisdiction over the matter, she added.
Concerning states rights and other objections made by Cliven Bundy in the federal district court, the court’s October ruling stated:
The Court finds that Bundy’s objections to the United States’ Motion, many of which have been disposed of in prior proceedings, are without merit. The Court has stated unequivocally on numerous occasions that it has jurisdiction to hear this case, and that the Allotment is owned by the United States and managed by the (Department of the Interior) through the BLM and the NPS. Bundy’s repeated suggestions to the contrary are entirely unavailing.
About more than a rancher
This is about more than Cliven Bundy and the BLM, Ryan Bundy said, “people need to understand it’s about state sovereignty.”
That is the real meat of the issue, he said, not the desert tortoise, which he called an environmental ruse.
Aside from land originally set aside for the creation of Washington D.C. and land bought from the state for needful purposes, the Constitution doesn’t allow the federal government to own land within the states, Ryan Bundy said.
“All the lands they claim to own – they don’t,” Ryan Bundy said. “They’re the trespassers, not us.”
As for grazing rights, he said his family’s rights to the land were established in the 1880s by ancestors who settled the area. Those grazing rights were established and even recognized to an extent under the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934, he said.
With the range war between the BLM and Cliven Bundy heating up over the last week, both the rancher and his son have said they have received an outpouring of support from thousands of people.
“I get calls and emails, text messages, Facebook messages,” Ryan Bundy said. “We’re getting a lot of support from a lot of different directions.”
Some of the support Bundy is receiving is local, across the border in Utah, and from places throughout the West, he said.
Some people have committed to show up at the Bundys’ ranch in Bunkerville, Nev., in order to see what they can do to stop what isn’t seen as a roundup, but rather government-sanctioned theft, Ryan Bundy said.
“The BLM and park service support an individual’s right to express themselves,” Cannon said. The BLM has even established designated “First Amendment zones” where protesters and supporters can gather. These zones are located at the intersection of Highway 170 and White Rock Road in Nevada.
However, should anyone attempt to threaten, intimidate or bring harm to either federal agents or those contracted to aid in the cattle impoundment, they may find themselves placed under arrest.
“In the end,” Ryan Bundy said, “who is going to be the best manager of the land?”
Ranchers are stewards of the land, he said, adding that they maintain the land and take of it so they can use it year after year. To this end Cliven Bundy has made various “improvements” to the land which has included providing his cattle with additional sources of water. These improvements have not set well with the BLM.
In contrast, Ryan Bundy said the BLM “just wants to waste the land. They want to gain control.”
“People need to stand up,” he said. “Our freedoms are being eroded.”
The BLM has said the situation could have been defused long ago if Bundy simply kept his cattle on his own land. Ryan Bundy said his father owns around 160 acres on which his home and various ranching facilities currently stand. The Bundy Ranch currently runs some 500 head of cattle on the disputed range. However, he added cows with calves are counted as one head of cattle.
The BLM posted on its website that it counted nearly 570 cattle still roaming public land in December 2013.
For his standing up to the BLM, an editorial from the Las Vegas Review-Journal referred to Cliven Bundy as having “big brass ones.”
- BLM: Northeast Clark County cattle trespass website
- BLM: Taylor Grazing Act
- Bundy Ranch blog
- Bundy Ranch blog: Contact information for Clark County and Nevada officials
- Letter to the Editor: The spirit of the West; range war
- Letter to the Editor: Bundy forfeited right to graze cattle; counter opinion, range war
- Range war: BLM, Iron County to work together on feral horse issue – Iron County
- ON Kilter: Bundy’s victim mentality costs him grazing rights
- Range war: County resolves to solve wild horse problem if BLM prioritizes Bundy cattle – Iron County
- Range war: County Commissioners oppose BLM bringing Bundy cattle to Utah – Washington County
- Perspectives: The Bundys vs the bureaucracy
- ON Kilter: Trespass cattleman not above the law
- BLM, National Park Service close public lands due to trespassing cattle dispute
- ‘Where’s the line?’ Ivory’s crusade to return public lands to the states
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