The tapeworm of the livestock industry, also known as the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), is at it again. I’ve been following federal-state land battles for some 50 years and the script rarely changes. Of course I’m referring to the current dispute between Southern Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy’s family and the BLM over whether Bundy’s cattle can graze on federal lands.
This is a volatile issue because the BLM owns and manages more than 85 percent of Nevada’s total land area. In other words, federal bureaucrats in Washington, D.C., decide who can do what on federal lands. Burning Man is just fine, but cattle represent an environmental threat. The current battle pits the BLM against the Bundy family, which has been running cattle on remote public rangelands 90 miles northeast of Las Vegas for more than 100 years. The BLM, in its infinite wisdom, decided to seize about 900 head of cattle roaming a vast area about half the size of Delaware because the cattle were supposedly threatening the habitat of the “endangered” desert tortoise.
So are you with longtime Nevada ranchers or bureaucrats? According to the AP, the current dispute “dates back to 1993, when land managers cited concern for the federally protected tortoise and capped Bundy’s herd at 150 animals on a 250-square-mile rangeland allotment.” The BLM asserts that family patriarch Cliven Bundy owes more than $1 million in unpaid grazing fees while ignoring federal court orders to remove his animals from the disputed area.
Bundy acknowledges owing $300,000 in grazing fees but says that his Mormon family’s 19th century Virgin Valley farming and ranching operation predates the creation of the BLM in 1946. He promises to “do whatever it takes” to protect his property and his animals in what he describes as a “range war.” Well, it certainly looked like a range war this month when armed federal agents moved in to round up Bundy’s cattle and remove them from the disputed area.
Bundy’s son Ammon said he was hit twice by stun gun charges and family members claimed that Cliven Bundy’s 57-year-old sister was knocked to the ground during a confrontation with BLM rangers. Bundy’s 37-year-old son Dave, who was taken into custody as he watched the roundup, was released the next day with bruises on his face and a citation for resisting arrest.
“No cow justifies the atmosphere of intimidation which currently exists nor the limitation of constitutional rights that are sacred to all Nevadans,” said Gov. Brian Sandoval, a former federal judge. His comments came the same day the Senate confirmed Elko native Neil Kornze, a former aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), as the new head of the BLM. Presumably, Kornze and/or Reid will intervene to prevent the federal agency from violating the constitutional rights of Nevada ranchers.
All of this reminds me of the high-profile Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s and ’80s, when there were repeated clashes between rural Nevadans and the Feds. The most colorful clash occurred when Elko County outdoorsmen formed a so-called shovel brigade to reopen a county road that had been closed to protect an “endangered” fish. The Forest Service backed down and the road remains open.
States’ rights will prevail if the Bundys defeat the BLM in the current battle. I wish them well.
Guy W. Farmer of Carson City is a longtime political columnist for the Nevada Appeal.