Sunday, April 15, 2012

Rancher refuses to budge in standoff with BLM


Sheriff Doug Gillespie rode with Cliven Bundy in his weathered, white pickup down a bumpy trail on the outskirts of Bunkerville. They chatted about the Bureau of Land Management's plans to round up the rancher's cattle.
The sheriff agreed to disagree with the 65-year-old rancher's suggestion of what he should do as Clark County's elected law enforcer to keep federal land managers from "stealing" his cattle.
"These are federal lands. They can do what they want to do," Gillespie recalled telling Bundy during the April 6 tour of the Gold Butte range, 80 miles northeast of Las Vegas. "I use my influence to make sure whatever is done is done by the law and, No. 2, it is done peacefully."
Then and now, Bundy remains steadfast in his intention to resist government efforts to round up his cattle from rangeland where his family has lived since 1877.
The BLM had canceled Bundy's permit for the Bunker­ville allotment in 1994. But he continued to let his cattle graze on the vast, sage-dotted landscape -- without paying the $2-per-head-per-month fee and in violation of a federal court order that he remove his herd to preserve the habitat for the federally protected desert tortoise.
So, the BLM finally hired cowboys and planned a helicopter-assisted roundup last week to remove his herd -- anywhere from 500 to 900 head of cattle depending on who's counting.
The BLM's last-minute decision to divert its roundup plans, at least for now, to pursue another legal avenue raises questions about how one man's resistance to the bureau's rules will affect other ranchers in the West.
This could signal the resurgence of the Sagebrush Rebellion, a homegrown state's rights movement against federal land ownership that swept across rural Nevada and surrounding states in the 1980s.
Bundy didn't mince words when he put the BLM contractor on notice about the cattle gather that was supposed to begin Wednesday.
"There is a volatile situation currently taking place," Bundy wrote to Cattoor Livestock Roundup Inc. "Cliven Bundy will do whatever it takes to protect his property and rights and liberty and freedoms of those of, We the People, of Clark County Nevada."
His threat seemed to have worked, at least for the time being. The BLM blinked when officials in Washington, D.C., decided late Tuesday to suspend the roundup indefinitely because of safety concerns for people involved.
That disappointed BLM Southern Nevada District Manager Mary Jo Rugwell. She and her staff had spent months plotting the roundup and coordinating with BLM rangers, a special bureau agent for the Southwest region and the sheriff's staff and officers who work out of the area's rural substation.
The FBI even sent a representative to listen in, Gillespie said.
After all, they didn't want the long-simmering feud over grazing rights to boil over into a deadly confrontation like what occurred at the Weaver Ranch in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, that left two family members and one federal marshal dead in 1992. Or, like the standoff in Waco, Texas, that ended on April 19, 1993, when federal agents besieged cult leader David Koresh's Branch Davidian ranch, ending in a fiery assault that killed 76 people.
"Nobody wants this to turn into a confrontation where violence would occur," Gillespie said. "Mr. Bundy doesn't want that and neither does the BLM."
While he's not concerned that Bundy or his family would resort to violence, the sheriff said, the situation is complicated and emotions run high.
"I always get nervous when people come to support a cause on one side or the other. Whether on the environmental side or the cattle rancher side, we have to do our best to mitigate those situations from occurring," the sheriff said.
Gillespie's advice to the BLM was to revisit legal avenues for dealing with the disgruntled rancher. He said he felt uncomfortable trying to be the peacemaker after the 1998 court order that federal land managers were trying to enforce had withered with time.
"Those court documents are old," Gillespie said. "I ask them to take that back to court and address the issue. Then, OK, if he continues to trespass, then you seize the cattle.
"In my conversations with the BLM from their legal standpoint, I see it as a case of 'could you, should you.' Could you? Yes. Should you? No. Cattle does not trump human life."
Rugwell made removing Bundy's cattle one of her priorities when she took the reins of the local BLM office in 2008. In the early 1990s when he was still paying grazing fees, the herd on his 158,666-acre Bunkerville allotment was capped at 150 head. About 10,486 acres of the allotment was on National Park Service lands along the tip of Lake Mead's Overton arm.
After his grazing permit was canceled in 1994, the herd grew and some cattle migrated to far reaches of the Gold Butte area.
Last week, Bundy estimated his adult cattle numbered about 500 in what the BLM describes as the 500,000-acre Gold Butte area.
Rugwell said her staff in December began planning for the roundup but the cattle's impact on the landscape was getting out of hand, causing considerable damage to natural resources even though Bundy had been diligent in maintaining some 30 spring-fed water systems in the area.
"We really didn't know how big the problem was until we started doing counts last year. There were as high as 900 (cattle) out there," Rugwell said Thursday.
Subsequent counts in August tallied 730 cattle, and the latest one this month turned up 750. That doesn't include strays that had wandered over the state line to Pakoon Springs, Ariz.
Rugwell had set a target of early to mid-April for the roundup because conditions would be right for it.
"We were making sure that it's not too hot, because there would be less stress on cattle and people. That's the reason for the timing," she said.
Rugwell notified Bundy in an April 3 letter about his cattle trespassing on public lands. She informed him they would be rounded up and impounded because the herd had been roaming for 18 years "without authorization in areas that are closed to grazing" in violation of the 1998 federal court injunction.
The letter said Bundy would be contacted after all the cattle had been gathered and he would be allowed to claim any that bear his brand.
"In my mind, the most important issue with respect to trespass is the fact trespass is unfair to other users, like recreationists. They pay fees and follow rules. In my mind it's a fairness issue," she said Wednesday after the roundup had been suspended indefinitely.
Cases like Bundy's have been tried before in the courts, and county sheriffs in Nevada, California and Idaho have had varying degrees of support for ranchers and their causes.
But Bret Birdsong, a professor at the Boyd School of Law at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and an expert on public land and natural resources litigation, said Bundy's legal arguments that federal rangers and BLM staff have no jurisdiction over the federal lands he uses for ranching "are based on interpretation of the Constitution which has been debunked by the Supreme Court for many years."
"That is clearly not the law," he said.
Bundy contends the limitless authority that the federal government had over the territory evaporated when Nevada became a state in 1864.
However, Birdsong said the BLM still has power to enforce laws on public land and to seize cattle through a court order or even by administrative action.
"I don't see personally why they couldn't go back to court to seek enforcement of the injunction," Birdsong said. "The idea that the sheriff should come to his defense seems just wrong."
Bundy appealed the U.S. District Court ruling, and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the injunction against him in a 1999 order.
However, there is concurrent jurisdiction between the BLM and the sheriff with enforcing laws on federal land.
"If someone steals your car while you're camping at Gold Butte that would be enforceable under state law," he said. "But if the state passes a law that allows grazing on federal land, and federal law says you can't, then federal law prevails where there's a conflict."
Birdsong points to a 1997 cattle trespass case in Northern Nevada that stands as a precedent for legal action by the BLM over Bundy's continued effort to run cattle where grazing is prohibited in Gold Butte.
In the 1997 case, Clifford Gardner was charged with trespass by the U.S. Forest Service for letting cattle from his Dawley Creek Ranch roam part of the Humboldt National Forest that had been ravaged by a wildfire. Although Gardner and his wife, Bertha, had a permit to graze there, the Forest Service had reseeded the burn area and closed it to grazing for two years.
Gardner violated the order by sending his cattle in and was fined for trespassing. He was sued by the Forest Service after refusing to pay the fine, arguing that the federal government didn't have title to the land so he couldn't be in trespass.
The 9th Circuit, however, held that the United States, not Nevada, owns public lands in the state and that they have power to regulate grazing under the Constitution's property clause.
The U.S. government's authority over public land is far-reaching; its agencies hold 87 percent of the land in Nevada. The BLM alone manages more than 47 million acres including about half of the land in Clark County, or roughly 2.7 million of the county's 5.1 million acres.
Reno resident Ramona Morrison, daughter of the late Sagebrush Rebellion icon Wayne Hage, said she is closely following the Bundy-BLM feud as a member of the Nevada Agriculture Board.
"We need to be sure due process of law is being followed and state law is being followed and the BLM is not conducting a rogue police operation," she said.
Her father battled the federal government for decades over public lands and private property rights after the Forest Service greatly reduced the number of cattle he could graze. Hage sued the agency for harassment and prevailed in 2002 when a judge ruled he had a right to graze cattle and use springs on federal land north of Tonopah.
But others argue that federal agencies aren't doing enough to protect public lands from overgrazing.
The Center for Biological Diversity is contemplating suing the BLM for dragging its feet on the roundup, noting the county bought up the grazing rights in 1998 and retired them to benefit its Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan, considered a model for allowing development and sensitive ecosystems to coexist.
"On the ground, even though good intentions have been made, nothing is different than before," said Rob Mrowka, a spokesman for the environmental watchdogs.
Greta Anderson, deputy director of the Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit conservation group, said the BLM needs to follow through on its roundup instead of knuckling under to Bundy's threats of resistance.
"They have all the legal authority in the world but not the political will."
Contact reporter Keith Rogers at or 702-383-0308.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

BLM cattle roundup called off

The decision that this week halted the government-threatened roundup of hundreds of cattle owned by Bunkerville rancher Cliven Bundy from Gold Butte southwest of Mesquite came from the highest level of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in Washington, D.C.
The cattle that for years have been the focus of an intense dispute between Bundy and the BLM were scheduled to be corralled and taken off the land Wednesday by “contract cowboys,” Cattoor Livestock Roundup Inc., Bundy told the Desert Valley Times.
Bundy said he learned weeks ago that his long-standing disagreement with the BLM over the cattle was once again coming to a head after simmering with little or no action for years.
“I had been working with the sheriff (Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie) for about six weeks and I was aware things were changing,” Bundy said.
During a recent personal visit from Gillespie at his ranch, the 65-year-old Bundy said he learned the government intended to enforce this week an impound notice that had been issued July 26, 2011.
Bundy and family members immediately began notifying and contacting various friends, groups and others sensitive to his position about the land and proposed roundup. He also notified the Cattoors, the County Commission and the sheriff that he intended to hold them liable for all of his cattle and equipment.
In the notice, the rancher said there was a “volatile situation currently taking place.
“Cliven Bundy will do whatever it takes to protect his property and rights and liberty and freedoms and those of We the People of Clark County Nevada,” Bundy wrote.
Within 24 hours Bundy said he received a call from Gillespie who informed him the roundup had been cancelled, “it was not going to happen.”
“He told me he’d received a call from Washington, D.C. that said, ‘We’re not going to take Bundy’s livestock tomorrow,’” Bundy said. “He told me to go ahead and get to ranchin’.”
BLM Southern Nevada District Manager Mary Jo Rugwell told the DVT late Thursday that she didn’t know who had contacted Gillespie, but an email she had personally received rescinding the roundup was from BLM Deputy Director Mike Pool.

Rob Mrowka, Nevada conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity, a non-profit environmental group actively involved in Gold Butte, said he believes the cancellation came at least from BLM Director Robert Abbey, “probably higher.”
It matters little today who ordered the cancellation since the disagreement over the land, who is the proper steward and other contentious matters are still ongoing.
“Our goal has always been to get the cattle off the land peacefully, safely,” Rugwell said. “Really, the last thing we wanted to do was an impoundment. An impoundment is a serious matter.
“We have been asking for years that Cliven Bundy remove the cattle himself,” she continued. “I have always hoped Mr. Bundy would do it himself willingly. As it is we will continue to work through the solicitor general’s office put a legal case together to take to federal district court.”
Basically, the Bundy/BLM feud started in the early 1990s, Bundy said, over land he calls the “Bundy Ranch,” property in the Gold Butte area, a vast area of critical environmental concern.
Bundy maintains because Nevada is a sovereign state that has empowered individual counties with authority over land in those counties, Clark County, not the BLM is the real landlord of the property in question.
“The federal government has no jurisdiction over that land,” he said.
Because of this belief in country jurisdiction, Bundy said he refused to sign or pay for a grazing permit to run his cattle on the land in question. His allotment permit, which was located on the massive Bunkerville Allotment, was then cancelled.
After years of litigation and an appeal to the 9th Circuit Court, it was ruled that Bundy and his cattle were trespassing and in violation of federal rulings and he was ordered to remove his cattle from the land.
Additionally, in 1998 Clark County purchased grazing rights to entire Bunkerville Allotment for almost $400,000 from the remaining permitees for the benefit and protection of the desert tortoise. 
The belief is, according to Mrowka, that the cattle eat the forage the desert tortoise, “and other threatened or endangered species,” need to survive.
Nevertheless, Bundy cites “pre-emptive” rights to the forage, water and access, which he says he owns because they were established through use by his forefathers who began running cattle in the area in 1870s.
For now, the argument over the cattle has been put back into the pot to continue simmering.
Bundy, too, is continuing to simmer.
“Cliven Bundy has fought for the rights of the citizens of Mesquite and Virgin Valley for all his life,” Bundy said to the DVT. “I have never put up a no hunting or no trespassing sign on my ranch. I have never complained or harassed anybody for any off road use. I have never hindered any hunter or recreational pleasure use.
“I have always stood up and defended your right to access this land,” he said. “I have fought in many public meetings for your right to commerce. I fought for the City of Mesquite to keep from having to pay mitigation for the desert tortoise and multi species act.
“Now the city has climbed in bed with people like the Friends of Gold Butte and other environmental organizations and they’re the people that have pressed the federal government and brought this problem down on Cliven Bundy today.
“I will do whatever it takes to protect We the People rights on this Clark County land,” he said.


Sunday, April 8, 2012

Support waning for Mexican gray wolf program - NMDA pulls out

For the third time in recent weeks, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has had one of its partners abandon an agreement that was meant to bring more collaboration to the troubled effort to reintroduce Mexican gray wolves to the Southwest.

While it's no secret the effort has been a point of contention among ranchers and environmentalists, one federal official says there will undoubtedly be a loss of perspective with fewer partners at the table.

"We like to have that collaboration and that kind of thought process that leads to better decisions," said Wally Murphy, supervisor of the Fish and Wildlife Service's ecological services field office in New Mexico.

Murphy called the recent developments "disheartening," given that the wolf program is facing critical decisions this year that will affect its future direction. The Fish and Wildlife Service is working on revamping the wolf recovery plan, which, among other things, will spell out what it will take to eventually get the animal off the federal endangered species list.

"We really need all of our partners in that decision-making process," he said. Several counties, state agencies and tribal governments in Arizona and New Mexico had signed on to a memorandum of understanding in 2010. The purpose was to provide a framework of collaboration in hopes of balancing the program's goals of returning wolves to the wild with pressures on ranchers, their livestock and other wildlife. Now, the Arizona Game and Fish Department, the White Mountain Apache Tribe and three Arizona counties — Greenlee, Navajo and Graham — are the only remaining partners aside from federal land and wildlife management agencies. The exodus started last summer with the New Mexico Game and Fish Department. In late March, Grant and Sierra counties abandoned the agreement, and the New Mexico Department of Agriculture joined them earlier this week. Caren Cowen, executive director of the New Mexico Cattle Grower's Association, said the withdrawal is "indicative of how far awry the process is with people on the ground." "There just doesn't seem to be any headway being made and input hasn't made a difference," she said. Sierra County Manager Janet Porter Carrejo said residents were concerned that millions of dollars have been spent on the program since 2003 without much return. She also said residents feel the federal government hasn't been forthcoming with information about how many wolves are in the wild. The Fish and Wildlife Service's most recent survey, completed in January, puts the wolf population in New Mexico and Arizona at about 58. Captive-bred wolves were first released in Arizona in 1998 as part of the reintroduction effort. Biologists hoped to have at least 100 in the Blue Range Recovery Area after eight years. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has acknowledged that the effort to increase the population has been hampered by everything from illegal shootings, removals due to livestock kills and court battles over program management. For New Mexico Agriculture Secretary Jeff Witte, the decision to withdraw came down to staffing levels, budget limitations and the program's lack of progress. "If we get to the point where we get staffed up again and things start moving and input is requested and desired, then we'll reconsider," he said. Some wolf supporters argue that the local partners that bowed out have done little to advance recovery of the Mexican wolves. "This is not a great loss to wolf recovery," said Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity, which has pushed for the release for more wolves into the wild. "They used their positions to organize against wolves and to try to be insiders in a process that should be more open to the public." Murphy described all the partners as critical and said he hoped they would sign on again once the agency comes up with a new recovery plan. "One hundred wolves in the Blue Range was the best information we had in 1998. It's 14 years later, so we've got better information now and going through this recovery planning process gets us to even a better place," he said.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Western Watersheds Project Wins Grazing Suit in California

On Friday, March 30, 2012 a federal district judge in San Fransisco ruled that the Forest Service violated the law when it issued grazing permits on five allotments on Mendocino and Klamath National Forests without performing the requisite environmental review.

The Forest Service had claimed that its issuance of these grazing permits was "categorically excluded" from review under the nation's premier environmental law, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), because of a legislative rider that was tagged onto the 2006 appropriations bill.  The rider had allowed the Forest Service to categorically exclude grazing permits from NEPA if the permit continued current grazing management, if monitoring indicated that current grazing management was meeting management plan objectives, and if there were no "extraordinary circumstances."

United States District Judge Phyllis Hamilton found that the Mendocino Categorical Exclusion did not comply with the rider because the monitoring was inadequate, and that the Klamath Categorical Exclusion did not comply with the rider's "extraordinary circumstances" prong because the Forest had failed to consider impacts to designated wilderness.

Our thanks go to Warren Braunig and Lauren Rule of Advocates for the West who represented Western Watersheds Project and a coalition of other organizations in this case !

Dr. Michael Connor
California Director