The Battle of the Butte: Rancher Takes on the Federal Gov’t

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“No cow justifies the atmosphere of intimidation which currently exists nor the limitation of constitutional rights that are sacred to all Nevadans.”

Only in Nevada…

Yes, those are the actual words of Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, addressing a twenty year range war between a Nevada rancher and the federal government.

For two decades, Cliven Bundy, a 67-year-old rancher, has been embroiled in a battle with the Bureau of Land Management, a federal agency within the Department of the Interior that administers public lands.

The longstanding dispute reached its boiling point last week when the BLM seized nearly 400 of Bundy’s cows, alleging the animals were “trespassing” on federal land. Following the BLM roundup, hundreds of Nevadans showed up to protest the actions of the federal agency, claiming the BLM had overstepped its boundaries and infringed upon states’ rights. Looking much more like an armed rebellion, many protesters carried handguns and rifles and all shared Bundy’s sentiment that “this is a lot bigger deal than just my cows.”

The Conflict

While the fight between Bundy and the BLM has become a full-blown debate over states’ rights, it essentially boils down to a dispute over ownership: federal vs. state. Bundy, along with hundreds of fellow Nevadans who demanded the release of his cattle, believe the land in question, a 600,000-acre area near the Utah border known as Gold Butte, belongs to the state of Nevada. The Bureau of Land Management, on the other hand, assumed control of the land as part of a conservation effort in 1993 and has sought to maintain order ever since.

Cliven Bundy’s Case

When the BLM took control of Gold Butte and other federal lands back in 1993, it wasn’t to stick it to Cliven Bundy and other ranchers who had used the land for decades. Rather, the BLM claimed the seizure was an attempt to save the desert tortoise, an endangered species that was given the status of “threatened” in 1990. According to the Washington Post, the conservation measures included “the elimination of livestock grazing and strict limits on off-road vehicle use in the protected tortoise habitat.”

Not convinced by the conservation effort, Bundy accused the government of “land grabbing” and was not willing to relinquish his grazing privileges for another wildlife preserve. Fast forward to 2014 and the situation hasn’t changed much. Despite numerous lawsuits, court orders, and even violence between the BLM and ranchers – bombs were “anonymously” sent to land management offices in 1995 and 1996 –Bundy has consistently refused to remove his cows from the land.

A descendent of Mormons who settled in the area more than 140 years ago, Bundy claims he holds an “inherent right” to graze the land. He simply refuses to recognize federal authority on land he believes belongs to the state of Nevada. Although Bundy has agreed to pay any fees he owes, he will only fork over his money to Clark County, Nevada – not the BLM.

The Bureau of Land Management’s Case

Despite the skepticism of Bundy and other’s regarding the federal agency’s motive for seizing the land, the BLM has stuck to its story of conservation. For Bureau of Land Management Chief Neil Kornze, the issue is black and white: Bundy has been repeatedly breaking the law.

“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,” Kornze told CBS News. “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,” he continued.

After he refused to comply with BLM restrictions, the Bureau revoked Bundy’s permit in 1993 and have fined him countless times for grazing on federally protected land. Despite this, Bundy has never applied for a new permit nor has he paid any fines.

In 1998, a federal judge in Las Vegas ordered Bundy to remove his trespassing cattle from Gold Butte. After attempts to settle outside of court in 2013, the BLM implemented two federal court orders to remove Bundy’s cattle.

Current Status

Citing “serious concerns about the safety of employees and members of the public,” Kornze called off the roundup of Bundy’s cattle this past Sunday, releasing the 400 cows that were gathered.

While the question of whether Bundy is a law-breaking rancher or a champion of states’ rights remains up for debate, the conflict has paused for the time being.

Still, both sides recognize that they remain very much at odds. Those on Bundy’s side claim the fight has only just begun, and the BLM released a statement saying “the door isn’t closed” and that they would “figure out how to move forward with this.” That being said, the BLM’s decision to back down – and effectively allow Bundy and his followers to win the heated standoff – could prove to set a dangerous precedent for the future.

The situation in Nevada has even captured the attention of members of the U.S. Senate. While Nevada Senator Dean Heller calls the BLM’s  tactics “heavy handed,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has made it clear that the actions of Bundy and other ranchers will not go unpunished. “It’s not over,” Reid said. “We can’t have an American people that violate the law and then just walk away from it. So it’s not over.”

[Fox News] [CBS News] [Washington Post]

Matt DiCenso (@mdicenso24)

Matt DiCenso
Matt DiCenso is a graduate of The George Washington University. Contact Matt at



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