[Editor's note: This version differs from the printed version. An interviewee called in after the April 14 paper went to the press, and Mark wanted the amended version with the additional interview included.]
Cattle producers in Nevada and Utah are somewhat torn about the controversial standoff between embattled Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management that has resulted in the federal government’s confiscation of Bundy’s livestock.
While the ranchers oppose stringent restrictions on federal public grazing lands, they also see the need to be law-abiding ranchers and good stewards.
In a statement issued in response to the standoff, the Nevada Cattlemen’s Association said that it “works hard to change regulations detrimental to the sound management of public lands in a lawful manner and supports the concept of multiple uses on federally managed lands and encourages members of the livestock industry to abide by regulations governing federal lands.”
NCA President Ron Torrell called the controversy “a slippery slope” when he was interviewed by the Western Livestock Journal. “We’ve received more hate mail calling us a spineless bunch of worms” for not more ardently defending Bundy, he said. “It’s in the hands of the courts, BLM and Mr. Bundy … We’re not the spokesman for Mr. Bundy.”
Bundy is not a member of the NCA, which has more than 560 dues-paying members in Nevada. Torrell said the dispute has been triggered by the Endangered Species Act and listing a desert tortoise as endangered. “Public lands grazing always has been contentious and always will be, but you can’t change laws by breaking laws.”
The NCA statement stressed the association “supports effective range management through collaboration with resource management agencies and interested parties to achieve rangeland management goals for economically viable ranch operations and the conservation of wildlife species.”
The NCA noted that a federal judge reviewed the Bundy case and authorized the U.S. government to impound Bundy’s cattle, enjoining them from trespassing on federal land.
“Nevada Cattlemen’s Association does not feel it is in our best interest to interfere in the process of litigation,’’ the association stated, but added the NCA is concerned and sensitive about how the Bundy cattle confiscation has evolved.
The federal roundup of Bundy’s 900 cattle on public range about 80 miles northeast of Las Vegas, near Bunkerville west of the Utah line, began Saturday, April 5, shutting down a 1,200-square-mile Gold Butte area about half the size of Delaware through May 12. It has been off limits to cattle since 1998. Bundy quit paying federal grazing fees five years before that when grazing was legal.
The BLM charges the cattle are illegally grazing on arid, fragile habitat for the endangered tortoise without the issuance of approved permits. BLM officials said the cattle impounding is “an option of last resort.” As of April 9, 352 of Bundy’s cattle had been impounded.
The BLM and National Park Service have made repeated attempts to resolve the matter with Bundy administratively and judicially for more than 20 years, the BLM said in a news release. He has failed to comply with multiple court orders to remove his cattle from federal lands and end the illegal trespass, it said.
“Allowing individuals to continue illegal trespass grazing on federal lands is a matter of fairness to thousands of ranchers whose livestock graze in compliance with state and federal laws and regulations throughout the West. … The BLM and NPS are working closely with local, state and federal officials to ensure the impoundment occurs safely and in a transparent and orderly manner, and with limited disruption to other users and visitors who enjoy our nation’s public lands.”
Many consider the open conflict between Bundy and the BLM to be the latest round of the so-called “Sagebrush Rebellion” of the 1970s and ’80s. The federal government manages or controls more than 80 percent of Nevada’s land. Armed federal agents and contracted cowboys are participating in the roundup.
Calling federal agents “cattle thieves,“ Bundy, in turn, has threatened “a range war,” claiming ancestral rights to graze on the open range. He told FoxNews.com the agents have surrounded his 150-acre ranch, bringing in equipment, flying in helicopters and posting snipers. “We’re not pointing guns at anyone , but we’re sure getting a lot of guns pointed at us,” his wife Carol said.
Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval criticized the feds and urged the BLM to reconsider its approach, which he called intimidation. He said he was most offended by federal officials trying to corral people protesting the roundup into a “First Amendment Area.”
Brent Tanner, executive vice president of the Utah Cattlemen’s Association, said the UCA has expressed concerns and potential challenges with the owner of the R Livestock Connection in Richfield. It has been reported that Bundy’s confiscated cattle would be shipped to that Utah auction, which would raise animal safety and public health issues, he said.
“Right now, I don’t think anybody in the state of Utah wants those cattle to come to Utah,” Tanner told WLJ, saying the Endangered Species Act is the spark that has ignited this fiery controversy.
“Our current issue in the state of Utah is we’ve got to be sure everything is done legally. If the animals do get on a truck and move toward Utah, every ‘t’ needs to be crossed and every ‘i’ dotted. It’s hard to know what the numbers will end up being.”
The BLM’s creation of “First Amendment Zones” has heightened the rhetoric and tension in this conflict, Tanner said. Bundy’s son reportedly was arrested, physically taken down and handcuffed in front of his wife and children after he took photos from a public highway of the BLM’s operations, he said.
The UCA has been in contact with the Utah governor’s office, state ag officials and congressional delegates to keep them posted on developments. Tanner said he has expressed concerns that what the BLM is doing may be legal, but it could quickly turn into a public safety issue.
Some ranchers in Utah are furious at the BLM cattle roundup in Nevada, but others say if Bundy did not abide by the law, the federal government had to intervene, Tanner observed.
What is frightening about the cattle removal is that the cows no longer will graze on vegetation that could combust and create wildfires, threatening the desert tortoise that the BLM is trying to protect, he said.
“Why spend that much money to remove the animals? Yet they don’t have the money to manage wild horses,” Tanner said. “This has created a difficult level of contention.”
The UCA supports public lands grazing and fully intends to defend the livestock industry. Ranchers fear federal agencies now will use the Nevada confiscation to remove more cattle and sheep from public lands, Tanner said. — Mark Mendiola, WLJ Correspondent