Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy has lost in every court his boots have walked into in recent years.
But thanks to the Bureau of Land Management’s mismanaged attempt to round up his “trespass cattle” from federal land, Bundy has won a round in the court of public opinion and emerged as a little-guy hero to conservative media outlets and right-wing politicians.
The land-use issue isn’t a small one in the Silver State. The federal government rides herd over 86 percent of Nevada’s public space, and ranchers here have long been at odds with the regulatory enforcement style of the BLM. Bundy’s family has run cattle in the Bunkerville and Gold Butte areas 90 minutes northeast of Las Vegas since 1877, and the stubborn 67-year-old has battled the government for nearly 30 years.
Claiming his family’s long history of ranching in the Gold Butte and Bunkerville essentially frees it from federal jurisdiction, Bundy stopped paying his grazing fees two decades ago. According to the government’s tally, and a U.S. District Court’s ruling, he owes approximately $1 million.
But this past week Bundy’s cows became a cause célèbre as his story went international. News commentators who might have been hard pressed to find Bunkerville on any map retold the story of the Nevada rancher’s right against the heavily armed BLM and its contract cowboys.
Once the federal agency’s lame decision to create “First Amendment Areas” to corral potential protesters became public, Bundy had more than his admittedly substantial extended family standing up on his behalf.
The BLM’s decision to send armed federal officers to patrol in the direct vicinity of Bundy’s ranch only served to increase tensions. What was supposed to be a cattle roundup looked more like a military exercise.
Within days, his family, friends, and neighbors were joined by a different crowd: armed citizen militia members from as far away as Florida and folks who were clearly blending their Tea Party politics with Bundy’s plight.
Their presence on the scene, compounded by the arrest of one of Bundy’s sons and the tasing of a BLM officer of another, forced the federal agency to call off the roundup and release the animals. On Saturday, Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie, whose authority Bundy does recognize, helped negotiate an end to what was fast becoming a boiling pot of armed federal officers, cranky constitutionalists, militia members in camouflage fatigues, and semi-automatic weapons.
Using helicopters and contract cowboys with armed escorts, the BLM managed to gather approximately 400 cows, but in the process apparently ran some of them past the point of exhaustion. In their haste the government wranglers also damaged precious water resources Bundy had worked years to develop. Not that the government was admitting any of this during its abbreviated and often delayed press briefings. Will the BLM wind up paying Bundy for all the trouble it caused him?
The mistakes and poor communication all played to Bundy’s advantage from a political standpoint—even if they didn’t put him on more secure legal footing. Not only had the federal courts resoundingly ruled against him, but even his ally, rancher Demar Dahl of the Nevada Cattlemen’s Association, acknowledged that his old friend had chosen the wrong trail to the courtroom and was unsound on the law.
“Unfortunately, I’m afraid that’s the case,” Dahl said last week. “He had his neck bowed and had his mind made up, by golly, wouldn’t stray from his position, which is that the feds don’t own the land.”
But the land is under federal jurisdiction.
On Monday, the BLM was still licking its wounds and declined to comment. But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a constant target of the right and a man whose emphasis on renewable energy projects in Nevada has raised shadowy suspicion about the Bundy cattle grab among his critics, was testy and adamant about the rancher’s transgression in Gold Butte. “It’s not over,” Reid said in Reno. “You can’t have someone violate the law. I’ve said that many times.”
Conservative blogs attempted to link Reid’s name to the Bundy dustup through a failed attempt by a Chinese company represented by the majority leader’s son to develop a solar power-generating facility near Gold Butte. The plan was scuttled two years ago, according to published reports.
Trouble is, the BLM’s heavy hand was undeniable.
“It was a great overreach on the part of the government,” Dahl said. “I can’t imagine who was advising the BLM for their tactics for doing this.”
The future of the land might be in question in the media, but the issue is finished as far as the federal court is concerned. Last year, U.S. District Judge Lloyd D. George signed a permanent injunction enforcing the previous decision to round up the trespass cattle and attempt to collect the grazing fee.
How they’ll next try to collect $1 million from the Nevada rancher who carries a copy of the U.S. Constitution but not much cash is anyone’s guess.
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