By Vernon Robison
Moapa Valley Progress
A long-time dispute between local rancher Cliven Bundy and the federal government over grazing cattle on the southern Nevada deserts nearly came to a head last week. At the last minute on Wednesday, BLM officials in Washington D.C. pulled the plug on an operation that would have rounded up and impounded hundreds of Bundy’s cattle ranging over thousands of acres of northeastern Clark County. Bundy’s ranching operation is based out of his Riverside home just south of Bunkerville along the Virgin River.
The BLM gather had been in planning for months, according to Bundy. During recent conversations with Sheriff Doug Gillespie, Bundy had learned that the BLM planned to enforce an impound notice which had been issued in July 2011. The cattle were scheduled to be gathered and removed from the land on Wednesday by contract cowboys Catoor Livestock Roundup, Inc., Bundy said.
On Monday afternoon, April 9, as the situation became more volatile, Bundy and his family sprang into action. They contacted family, friends and sympathetic organizations to notify them of the situation. They also contacted the local and regional press.
In addition, Bundy sent notice to the Catoors, the Sheriff, the Clark County Commissioners and other state elected officials; promising to hold them liable for any loss of his cattle or equipment in the raid. In the notice, he urged the Sheriff to “say NO to this unconstitutional power without limitation seizure”.
“Cliven Bundy will do whatever it takes to protect his property and rights and liberty and freedoms and those of We the People of Clark County, Nevada,” the notice stated.
In an interview Wednesday with the Progress, Bundy said that he had been willing to defend his rights at all costs. If asked whether the matter might have come to violence he said, “Why not? I’ve got to protect my property. I have a right to life, liberty and property.”
But within 24 hours of Bundy’s notice, the BLM backed down. Bundy reported receiving another phone call from Sheriff Gillespie.
“He said he’d gotten a call from Washington that they were not going to do it,” Bundy said. “They were calling it off. He told me to go ahead and go back to ranching.”
BLM Southern Nevada District Manager Mary Jo Rugwell told the Progress Wednesday afternoon that the BLM had decided not to proceed with the impoundment operation and instead would move forward with legal action.
“We will work with our solicitor to put together a case that describes what the effects of the long-standing trespass have been,” Rugwell said.
Last year the BLM conducted a cattle count in the region to determine how many of Bundy’s cattle were in the area, Rugwell said.
“The first count in March of 2011 found over 900 cattle out in that area,” she said. “It was a lot more than we thought we’d get.”
Multiple letters were sent to Bundy over the past year requesting that he voluntarily remove the livestock from the area, Rugwell said.
“Our goal all along has been to get the cattle out of the area in a safe way,” she said.
Rugwell said that the cattle have been causing damage to vegetation and cultural resources in the area. Much of the rangeland in question is under a special federal designation as habitat for the endangered desert tortoise.
“The problem is that the cattle adversely affects vegetation in the area,” Rugwell said. “Yes, tortoise burrows can also be crushed by the cattle. But mainly the vegetation is what the tortoise counts on to have a healthy population.”
Rugwell also claimed that the cattle pose a safety hazard to other people using the public lands.
“The cattle are wild and are not really managed,” Rugwell said. “So they get on roadways, get into other people’s private property and they can be dangerous to people. It’s not a good situation in terms of health of the land and safety of the public.”
Bundy dismisses the claim that the cattle are damaging tortoise habitat. He states that there has been absolutely no proof that the tortoise is affected by cattle on the range.
He also admits that his cattle have roamed beyond the lands that he claims as his grazing allotment. As the waters of Lake Mead have receded, Bundy’s cattle have been found to have roamed across the Muddy River and onto National Park Service lands at Lake Mead.
But Bundy says that Nevada is a ‘fence-out’ state in its laws.
“According to Nevada law you don’t have to fence your cattle in, you have to fence your neighbor’s cattle out,” Bundy said.
Years ago, when ranching in Clark County was common, this law worked well, Bundy said. Neighboring ranchers built fences to establish the boundaries of their allotments, he said.
“Now the ranchers are all gone but me,” Bundy said. “No one has been maintaining those fences.”
But Rugwell said that, aside from all of this, the heart of the matter for the BLM is one of fairness.
“There are hundreds of ranchers that follow the rules,” Rugwell said. “They have grazing permits, pay their fees and manage their cattle as they are supposed to. A lot of other users of public lands also pay for permits and follow their stipulations. It’s just not fair to all of those people that Mr. Bundy does what he wants and doesn’t follow the rules.”
The BLM claims that Bundy is grazing his cattle on public lands wholly without authorization. Rugwell explained that Bundy fell out of compliance with grazing regulation as far back as the early 1990s when the desert tortoise was listed as endangered. Grazing permits, which were issued then in ten year increments were re-analyzed and adjusted at that time to reconcile the needs of the tortoise, Rugwell said.
“Mr. Bundy did not accept those adjustments,” Rugwell said. “He just said: ‘I’m not going to pay my grazing fees anymore’.”
Later, in 1997, Clark County, as part of its Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan (MSHCP), offered to purchase all the existing grazing permits from Clark County ranchers and then retired all the existing grazing permits. Bundy refused to sell his rights. But the entire allotment was still retired at that time, Rugwell said.
“The result is that there is no authorized grazing on any of the area,” Rugwell said.
But Bundy insists that he has retained his rights to ranch on the land. He does not accept federal jurisdiction over his various ranching rights and maintains that the county and the state have policing power in the matter.
“I have pre-emptive rights through beneficial use,” Bundy said. “Those include rights for forage, water, access and range improvements. I believe in Nevada’s sovereignty over them as stated in the 10th amendment.”
Bundy’s water and range rights originate with his grandfather who began ranching the area in 1877. Since then, Bundy has either bought or inherited other rights which, he says, includes allotments over 120 square miles in the Virgin Mtn. range, the eastern side of the Mormon Mesa, the Toquop wash area, and some areas south of Bunkerville.
Bundy explained that, before the tortoise was listed as endangered, he paid grazing fees regularly to the BLM.
“Those grazing permits were a signed contract,” Bundy said. “They were a fee for service to manage and administer my rights to ranch on the land.”
But as the tortoise increasingly came into the picture, Bundy, who at the time served on the State Grazing Board, noticed that the arrangement seemed to be changing.
“I could see that the BLM was not managing the land for multiple use,” Bundy said. “Instead they were working to eliminate agriculture and other uses. When I figured out where the money was going I sent them a notice essentially firing them. I wasn’t going to pay them to manage my ranch out of existence.”
In response, 14 years ago, the federal government took Bundy to court and prevailed. The decision found Bundy in Trespass and it levied a heavy fine of $200 per day per cow on the land. Bundy expected an appeal to the Supreme Court by the state of Nevada who he said should have proclaimed its sovereignty in the matter. But nothing was ever done about it. Meanwhile, Bundy just kept ranching.
“This has gone on for 14 years,” Bundy said. “I’ve just kept going. They couldn’t collect and they never did collect.”
Bundy sees the issue as larger than just himself and his own grazing rights. It involves all of the public of Clark County, he says.
“I’m the last man standing,” he said. “I’m the only one left who is exercising pre-emptive and investive rights anymore. Right now Clark County has policing power over those rights. If they get rid of Cliven Bundy, the land is just federal land and they will exercise unlimited power on it. The public won’t have anything to say about road closures or access. This is as much the people’s battle as it is mine.”
For now, at least, the crisis seems to be over. Bundy is unsure of what the next steps will be. But whatever comes down the pike, he is determined to keep up the fight to the end.
“Despite all of the legal struggles of the past 14 years, I have still been successful in the livestock industry when everyone else was gone,” Bundy said on Wednesday. “And I was successful this morning, too!”