On April 5, 2014, the Bureau of Land Management began rounding up cattle that were grazing in the 600,000 acre area of Gold Butte, Nevada. They were acting on a court order to remove nearly 400 cows belonging to rancher Cliven Bundy who had been allowing them to graze there illegally.
Within a few days, Bundy became a national story. While the rest of America was just beginning to hear his name, this tale began more than 20 years ago and it started over an endangered desert tortoise.
Having existed for millions of years, the desert tortoise lives in many types of desert habitats. In recent history, their population has seen a serious decline, largely due to human activities destroying much of their habitat. The tortoise is very sensitive to its environment, and needs specific types of plants to eat and soil in which to burrow for nesting and hibernating. In 1989, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service listed the desert tortoise on its endangered species list and the next year, it was deemed threatened. By 1993, the Bureau of Land Management had designated hundreds of thousands of acres of federal land near Las Vegas, Nevada for strict conservation efforts to support the desert tortoise. This meant the limiting of off-road vehicles and the elimination of livestock grazing.
Many ranchers had been paying grazing fees for use of the newly protected areas. The BLM purchased those rights from several ranchers without issue. Several ranchers, and a few off-roaders, were not happy about the new plans. One of those ranchers was Cliven Bundy.
Bundy had been paying the grazing fees, which are $1.35 per animal annually, without question prior to 1993. With the new conservation efforts, Bundy protested by refusing to pay, setting off a twenty year battle. Since then, Bundy’s cattle population has ranged between 550-900 head of cattle, all of which has been grazing on public lands at taxpayers’ expense.
The federal government owns 87 percent of the land in Nevada. Over the next two decades, it would be embroiled in a battle with Nevada ranchers, and particularly Cliven Bundy, over what the ranchers felt was an issue of state’s rights. Around that time, ranchers were claiming that the federal government did not own lands in their states and fought in court to sue for jurisdiction. They often lost. Sometimes the fight turned violent, with three pipe bombs exploding in the Forest Services and Bureau of Land Management Offices over the course of two years. By 1998, the Justice Department had 12 lawsuits pending against Nevada Ranchers, including Cliven Bundy.
In 1998, a federal judge issued a permanent injunction against Bundy, ordering him to remove his cattle from the land.
Amid continued fighting with ranchers, it would take the BLM until April 2012 to make formal plans to remove Bundy’s cattle. Additional threats ensued and the BLM backed away from their plans. By now the ecosystem had been so severely damaged that the Center for Biological Diversity filed an intent to sue the BLM, after which the BLM headed to court – again – asking for yet another injunction against Bundy.
After ignoring an order to remove his cattle, Bundy was notified in October 2013 to not interfere with any impounding operations.
The impounding of his cattle began with a notice in March 2014, when the BLM wrote him that seizure was imminent. They cordoned off 332,000 acres of land in preparation. By this time, Bundy owed more than $1 million dollars in fees and penalties, including the cost of the round up. While the BLM prepared for one of the four, on average, livestock roundups it does annually, Bundy began garnering supporters from local ranchers and other anti-government types from around the country. The BLM anticipated this and set aside a “First Amendment” staging area for protestors when the roundup began on April 5, 2014.
The operation continued for another few days, netting approximately 134 of the 400 cattle that were due to be removed. With a handful of armed protestors from across the country itching for a chance to start a war with the federal government, the BLM suspended the operation yet again.
The fight is not over and the BLM has promised to enforce the order.
Cliven Bundy claims that this is a violation of his rights, given to him since before his birth. As he tells it, his family has been on that land since 1877 and the grazing and water rights have been passed down through generations. Furthermore, he says the federal government has no rights to the land it claims and that they are in violation of Nevada’s state constitution. In fact, Bundy refuses to acknowledge any federal government authority, claiming, “I abide by almost zero federal laws.” He claims his ancestral rights precede the BLM and the federal government. He says all of this while waving the American flag.
The only problem with all of Bundy’s claims is that none of them are true.
An investigation by Las Vegas’s station KLAS, found that the land in question was purchased by Bundy’s parents in 1948. Building began in 1951, and grazing on the land didn’t begin until 1954. As a point of reference, grazing districts in the west were created at the request of ranchers when Congress created the Taylor Grazing Act in 1934, which led the creation of the Las Vegas Grazing district in 1936. The Bureau of Land Management was created in 1946 – the year Cliven Bundy was born.
While no one who is dealing with reason or reality believes that Bundy’s claims have any merit, it should be noted that before the Bundys, and even before the Levitts, from whom the Bundys purchased the 160 acre ranch, were on the land, there were others that had the rights – and it wasn’t the federal government.
In 1875 the Pauite Indians were forced onto reservations by federal troops. This was after their refusal to leave the land on which Bundy is standing his ground. In 1873 they, too, were promised that land. They, too, did not recognize the federal government. Cliven Bundy might want to ask how claims of ancestral rights worked out for them.
In the meantime, the million year old desert tortoise would really appreciate it if everyone would just get off their land.