In the sparse Nevada rangeland this weekend, US 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 Mr. 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 protection.
The stories of conflict – and in some places resolution – often included mixed interests.
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 a statement.
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," Mr. Kornze said. "After 20 years and multiple court orders to remove the trespass cattle, Mr. Bundy owes the American taxpayers in excess of $1 million. The BLM will continue to work to resolve the matter administratively and judicially."