Nevada rancher vs. federal agents: a very old conflict suddenly made new
The Bureau of Land Management promises to pursue the matter of illegal grazing in the courts, and militia groups who support the Nevada rancher say they’ll protect him from any federal raid.
Boulder, Colo. — For now, Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy has his cattle, and the Bureau of Land Management has stepped down from a fight over grazing on public land that seemed likely to grow violent.
But the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has promised to pursue the matter in the courts, and militia groups who support Mr. Bundy have said they’ll protect him from any federal raid.
The confrontation – in which federal agents tried to take hundreds of Bundy’s cows after Bundy’s failure to pay what BLM officials say amounts to over $1 million owed to the federal government for years of illegal grazing of federal lands – became especially tense this past weekend.
A four-hour standoff Saturday between the federal agents and about 1,000 of Bundy’s armed supporters ended when the agents stopped rounding up the rancher’s cattle and agreed to return those it had already seized. On Monday Bundy called on sheriffs “across the United States of America” to “take away the guns from the United States bureaucrats.”
In some ways the confrontation harkens back to the Wise Use movement and Sagebrush Rebellion in the last few decades of the 20th century.
Those movements criticized environmental regulations, sought to expand private property rights, and sought to cede control of federal lands in the West to state and local authorities. Bundy contends that he shouldn’t have to pay for his cattle to graze on federal lands since he doesn’t recognize federal authority over those lands – a claim that has not held up in court.
But the sort of stand-off that occurred this past weekend, in which tasers were used by federal officials and Bundy followed up with his call to disarm BLM officers, is somewhat surprising in the present-day context, says Richard White, a history professor at Stanford University who studies the American West.
“A lot of this was decades old,” Professor White says. “What I think this [confrontation] did is spark into these kind of tea party property-right issues, which are new. That’s where you’ve got all the people showing up. It’s a very old issue that suddenly tapped into a new clientele and got an explosion…. This is a brand new 21st century issue.”
Given the volatile nature of the confrontation last week, the BLM was smart to back down, says White, noting that they have plenty of legal and administrative tools they can use against White without seizing his cattle, including going through the courts and making it difficult for him to legally sell his cattle.
"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," BLM director Neil Kornze said in a statement over the weekend. "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."
For now, though, Bundy is savoring what he considers to be a victory, and has been using the airwaves to push back against what he considers to be unjust laws.
“We didn't have a county sheriff. We didn't have a state government. And we the people marched, and the BLM backed down,” Bundy told Sean Hannity on Fox News Monday. “They might have took over our Clark County sheriff, but they never took over ‘we the people,’ the sovereign people of this nation. We're standing and we're going to stand until we take the guns away from those bureaucracies, and then we'll start making America great one more time.”
Nevada state Assemblywoman Michele Fiore has joined Bundy at his news conferences, and said she helped feed some of the calves that were returned over the weekend, noting that some of them had been damaged in the roundup.
“It’s time for Nevada to stand up to the federal government and demand the return of the BLM lands to the people of Nevada,” Assemblywoman Fiore said.
But most others, including Senate Majority leader Harry Reid and numerous environmental groups, have emphasized that Bundy has no legal ground to stand on, and have said the matter is far from resolved.
“We can’t have an American people that violate the law and then just walk away from it. So it’s not over,” Senator Reid told a local NBC affiliate Monday.
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.