By VERNON ROBISON
Moapa Valley Progress
The arid desert range southwest of Mesquite is heating up in anticipation of an Old West-style showdown. In recent weeks, Bunkerville rancher Cliven Bundy has been preparing for what may be a last stand in his decades-old struggle with the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) over what he believes are his ancestral rights to graze cattle on the land.
In an interview last week with the Progess, Bundy said that he had spoken recently to Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie. In that conversation, Gillespie reportedly informed Bundy that the BLM is getting close to enforcing a federal court order, issued last fall, to seize his cattle if he doesn’t remove them from the vast range south and west of Bunkerville.
“He sounded pretty certain that it was going to happen,” Bundy said. “The only uncertainty was just the matter of when.”
Earlier this week, BLM officials were still unwilling to give a date on when the roundup might occur. BLM spokeswoman Kirsten Cannon said that federal court rulings handed down in July and October gave Bundy 45 days to comply. That period is now long past, Cannon said.
“The BLM is continuing in its ongoing efforts to work with state, local and federal agencies to comply with the court order,” Cannon said. “There are a lot of details that are being worked out so we are still working on a timeline.”
Whenever it happens, Bundy says he has no intention of just giving in and moving his cattle off the land.
“I have pre-emptive rights on that land, adjudicated back in the 1930s under the Taylor Grazing Act,” Bundy said. “I’ll do whatever it takes to protect my life, liberty and property; and along with them, the rights of the other citizens of Clark County to have access to the land.”
This is not the first time that Bundy’s cattle have been in the crosshairs of the BLM. The legal actions have been flying back and forth since the early 1990s. That’s when environmentalist worries about the effects of ranching on the endangered desert tortoise habitat began to take hold. By the end of the 1990s, the government had bought out all of the existing grazing permits from Clark County ranchers; all, that is except for Cliven Bundy’s. Bundy refused to sell his rights. But the entire allotment of rights, including Bundy’s, was retired anyway at that time by the BLM.
For his part, Bundy disputes the very claim that the tortoise is truly an endangered species. Even if it is, he disputes that the existence of his cattle on the range are a danger to tortoise habitat.
But Bundy also insists that the current dispute is not really about the tortoise nor his cattle. Rather it is a dispute over ownership of the land and over the right of the public to access it.
Bundy has insisted all along that this issue is not under the jurisdiction of the federal government because he claims the land, by rights, actually belongs to the state of Nevada.
“According to the 10th Amendment, the state of Nevada is a sovereign authority within the United States to make rules and regulate itself and its lands,” Bundy said. “I believe that it is the people of Nevada and of Clark County who own this land that I graze my cattle on. I have no contract with the federal government so this whole thing shouldn’t be controlled by a federal court. It is the state courts that should assert authority in this matter.”
But the federal courts have disagreed with this assertion over the years. In 2008, the federal government took Bundy to court for Trespass on federal land and prevailed. The decision found Bundy in Trespass and levied a heavy fine of $200 per day per cow.
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. He was never assessed the fines, and Bundy just kept on ranching the land as he always had done.
That went on for 14 years. Then in the spring of 2012, the BLM made some specific plans for hiring contract cowboys to round up and impound hundreds of Bundy’s cattle.
In response, Bundy, along with his family and supporters quickly sprang into action. They sent notices to the contract cowboys, the Clark County Sheriff, the Clark County Commissioners and other state elected officials; promising to hold each of them liable for any loss of cattle or equipment in the raid.
The BLM officials backed down at that time stating that they would return back to the courts to strengthen their position.
Then last fall, the U.S. District Court released two orders that did just that. The orders permanently enjoined Bundy from trespassing on land that he has always considered his pre-emptive ranching allotment. The court orders also found that Bundy’s cattle had been allowed to wander far beyond his traditional allotment onto what the document calls “New Trespass lands”. So the orders also permanently enjoined Bundy from trespassing on that land and ordered him to remove all cattle from those lands as well.
The order also quickly dismissed Bundy’s claim that the land is, or should be, under state jurisdiction.
“The court finds that Bundy’s objections to the United States’ Motion are without merit,” the Order reads. “The court has stated unequivocally on numerous occasions that it has jurisdiction to hear this case and that the (former Bundy) allotment is owned by the United States. Bundy’s repeated suggestions to the contrary are entirely unavailing.”
Finally, the documents specifically entitled the federal government to “seize and remove to impound any of Bundy’s cattle that remain in trespass after 45 days of the date hereof”.
These documents claimed to have lined up all the legal technicalities needed for the BLM to move forward with the roundup. So now the BLM’s plan was to again hire a contractor to round up the animals and confiscate them.
This process requires that each animal be checked over by a state brand inspector. Even this technicality is claimed to be covered in the legal paperwork from the federal court being presented by the BLM.
“The Sheriff told me that they were going to come out and that the Nevada brand inspectors would be there to inspect the cattle,” Bundy said. “So it seems like both of their legs are wobbling a little bit on this thing.”
Nevertheless, Bundy says that he will continue on in the fight, following all of the legal avenues that he can. This includes pushing for a legal recognition that an order would be needed from a Nevada court in order to proceed with the brand inspections.
“Without a Nevada court order, the brand inspector is not required to come out,” Bundy said. “They work for me as a citizen of Nevada not for the feds. But they seem to be just going along with this. All the State Brand Inspector has to do is say ‘no’ and this whole thing would be shut down.”
Bundy said that he also plans to make a continued appeal to the Sheriff to uphold his grazing rights.
“All the Sheriff has to do is say ‘no’ to this,” Bundy said. “Is he going to step in and protect my rights or is he going to stand on the fence and allow this to go on?”
If the federal roundup of his cattle takes place, Bundy also promises to bring legal action against the contract cowboys hired to carry it out; as well as state and local officials who, he feels, ought to be standing up for him.
“I’m going to hold these people liable and legally accountable for their actions with any lawsuits that I need to do,” he said.
And what if all that fails? If so, Bundy said he will circle the wagons and continue to “make as much noise” as he can.
“I’ll bring my friends, relatives and supporters together to protest against this whole thing,” he said. “And then we will do whatever we have to do after that.”
Bundy emphasized that this was not just his own battle; but it was a battle for the people as well.
“This is not just about trying to eliminate Cliven Bundy in the ranching business,” Bundy said. “Because once I am off the land, they’ll want you off the land too. Then the federal government will have full policing power and rule as though we were just a territory and not a sovereign state. So I’m not just fighting for my rights. I’m fighting for freedom, liberty, agency and access to their lands for all citizens in Clark County. Yes it is my rights on the line; but it is yours also.”