'Range War' Fizzles as Feds Round Up Illegal Cattle

Cattle graze in the Mojave National Preserve, not precisely benefiting the landscape | Photo: tlindenbaum/Flickr/Creative Commons License

The roundup of as many as 900 illegally grazed cattle from Nevada public lands continued with nary a hitch on Monday, despite grandiose threats of a "range war" from the livestock's owner.

Bunkerville, Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy had issued the threat in response to a long-postponed confiscation of his cattle, which he's been grazing illegally on publicly owned Mojave desert land around Gold Butte in Clark County, Nevada since 1993.

That was the year in which Bundy, who denies the federal government legally owns land managed by the BLM, started to refuse to pay the token grazing fee required of ranchers who graze their livestock on public land. In the process, the combative Bundy has interfered with ecological restoration efforts, and environmentalists charge that his cattle are degrading the Gold Butte landscape.

The roundup, which started Saturday, had corralled 134 cattle by Sunday evening. As many as 1,000 cattle have been counted illegally grazing on the land in years past, though Bundy claims he only owns 500 head.

The National Park Service and other federal agencies are assisting in the roundup, which may cover as much as a half million acres of land when all is said and done. A 2012 attempt to remove the cattle was postponed after the BLM decided Bundy had threatened violence toward federal employees.

The Gold Butte area is an expanse of highly scenic, wild Mojave desert wedged in between the towns of Mesquite and Bunkerville, Nevada, the Grand Canyon Parashant National Monument, and the north shore of Lake Mead. It's important habitat for some of the most northerly populations of the Federally Threatened desert tortoise.

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"From the standpoint of wildlife, the springs and riparian areas in Gold Butte are vital," said John Hiatt, Red Rock Audubon's conservation chairman. "The most immediate result of the removal of the trespass cattle will be the recovery of the vegetation around these water sources which will benefit all wildlife species."

"Mr. Bundy has long falsely believed that Gold Butte is his ranch," added friends of Sloan Canyon's president Terri Robertson. "We all know that is not the reality, and it is time for him for obey the law."

According to Nevada conservationists, a number of attempts to revegetate habitat in the Gold Butte area have been destroyed by the trespass cattle.

In 1998, five years after Bundy began to refuse to pay his publicly subsidized grazing fees in 1993, the BLM finally revoked his grazing permit for failure to pay those fees. Clark County then bought out that permit for $375,000 and retired them permanently to protect the desert tortoise under the Clark County Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan.

In 2012, after that year's roundup was canceled by the BLM, the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) filed a notice of intent to sue the BLM for failing to remove the cattle, despite two court orders mandating the cattle be confiscated.

"Again and again federal judges have said the BLM has the right and duty to remove cattle trespassing in the Gold Butte area to protect desert tortoises and other imperiled species," said CBD senior scientist Rob Mrowka on Sunday. "We're heartened and thankful that the agencies are finally living up to their stewardship duty."

Though Bundy is attempting to rally support, he's not getting much traction outside of the furthest reaches of the anti-government right. Mainstream ranching organizations seem to be taking steps to distance themselves from Bundy's campaign. An article in the Las Vegas Review Journal quoted a statement from the Nevada Cattlemen's Association which took pains to point out they had nothing to do with Bundy's "range war."

"Nevada Cattlemen's Association does not feel it is in our best interest to interfere in the process of adjudication in this matter, and in addition NCA believes the matter is between Mr. Bundy and the federal courts," the association said.

That may well be out of a sense that ranchers are getting a good deal from public lands ranching, and Bundy's antics may jeopardize that. After all, paying a couple dollars a month per head of cattle and letting the public pick up the multi-million dollar tab to repair damage to the land is kind of a sweetheart deal.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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