The federal Bureau of Land Management returned a Nevada rancher’sView Post
cattle, avoiding a potentially dangerous confrontation. But the legal
fight over grazing fees continues.
By Brad Knickerbocker
In the sparse Nevada rangeland this weekend, U.S. western history came
alive with a fight over cattle that threatened to turn violent.
In the end, federal land managers backed down, giving rancher Cliven
Bundy his 400 head of cattle. The cows, which had been rounded up on
public land where Bundy’s herd had grazed for years, represented a
classic clash of values: Old West traditions and practices versus New
West environmental sensibilities.
In Bundy’s case, the story goes back to the 1870s, when his Mormon
pioneer ancestors first began ranching on public land, which
eventually came under the domain of the federal Bureau of Land
Management (BLM). Bundy claims the land is his, although he does not
have legal title to it.
Many ranchers in the rural West run their cattle on federal land,
paying regular grazing fees that are based on cow-calf pairs. Such
ranches range from small, family-based part time operations to large
corporations based in Los Angeles and elsewhere. Bundy had refused to
pay the fee, which led to the attempt to seize his cattle.
One problem over the years is that some ranchland across the West was
over-grazed as cows in what is a dry, fragile ecosystem naturally
headed for the water and tasty willows, trampling and fouling streams.
This in turn damaged the habitat of fish and other wildlife species
some of which dwindled to dangerously low numbers. In the Bundy story,
it was a federally-protected desert tortoise.
As relatively new environmental laws like the Endangered Species Act
came into play, conflicts over land use arose to the point where
so-called “Sagebrush Rebellions” ensued.
Mixed into this legal and political fracas many cases like Bundy’s
have ended up in court were deeper disputes over preserving the
“customs and culture” of the Old West in the face of New West modern
development (vacation homes, sometimes known dismissively as
“ranchettes”), recreational activity, and especially environmental
The stories of conflict and in some places resolution often included
Some ranchers practice “holistic management” cowboys on horseback or
riding all-terrain vehicles rotating their cattle very frequently to
mimic the movement of grazing wildlife stalked by predators in Africa.
(The theory was developed by Alan Savory, a big game manager from
Zimbabwe.) Advocates say regular, brief encounters with the hooves and
teeth of cattle stimulates the soil and plant growth while preventing
total trashing of the small and fragile plants that constitute the dry
ecosystem found across the West’s Great Basin.
While holistic management has been shown to work in many places,
advocates at both ends of the spectrum remain wary.
Some environmental activists oppose any practice that leaves cows on
the land. Meanwhile, the cattle industry lobby resists anything which
might restrict or regulate their business.
Meanwhile, some environmental organizations concerned that the traffic
and construction associated with second-home and recreational
development could make things worse than cattle ranching have worked
closely with ranchers to control and limit potentially harmful grazing
through such things as easements and conservation set-asides.
In the Trout Creek Mountains of south-east Oregon, the manager of the
White Horse Ranch (which dates back to the 19th century and includes
grazing rights on more than a quarter million acres of federal land)
worked with the BLM, the Sierra Club, the Izzak Walton League and
other conservation groups to restore fragile streams through
“exclosures” built to control the cattle and by adjusting the seasonal
rotation of the herd.
This reduced annual ranch profits by an estimated 15 percent. But it
helped restore the habitat of a threatened trout species, thus
removing the threat of even stricter regulation (and perhaps removal)
of cattle there.
In the saga of the Bundy ranch, none of this apparently was at play.
The dispute focused on Bundy’s refusal to pay grazing fees.
When federal agents began rounding up his cattle in similar cases in
the past, the cows had been auctioned off family members, cowboys on
horseback, and other ranchers gathered in protest.
There were speeches, prayers, and a recitation of the Pledge of
Allegiance. But the protestors also included self-styled militia
members armed with handguns and assault-style rifles. Bundy had
promised to “do whatever it takes” to fight the BLM.
No shots were fired, but the federal agency, working with local law
enforcement officials, decided to back off for now following
negotiations led by Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie.
“Based on information about conditions on the ground and in
consultation with law enforcement, we have made a decision to conclude
the cattle gather because of our serious concerns about the safety of
employees and members of the public,” BLM director Neil Kornze said in
This may have deescalated what could have been a dangerous situation,
but it does not end the dispute over Cliven Bundy’s livestock.
“This is a matter of fairness and equity, and we remain disappointed
that Cliven Bundy continues to not comply with the same laws that
16,000 public-lands ranchers do every year,” Kornze said.
“After 20 years and multiple court orders to remove the trespass
cattle, Bundy owes the American taxpayers in excess of $1 million. The
BLM will continue to work to resolve the matter administratively and