Snipers, tasers, and steer: the great Nevada range war
We turn now from the IRS scandal drama playing out on Capitol Hill to the second-greatest source of bovine excrement in America: cattle ranches. Specifically, the Bundy family ranch in Nevada, where KSL News reports on a weird, steadily escalating standoff between the ranchers and the federal Bureau of Land Management:
A federal judge in Las Vegas first ordered Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy to remove his trespassing cattle in 1998, according to reports from the Associated Press. Similar orders were issued in July 2013, and again in October.
Saturday, the BLM began taking some of the 908 cattle from Bundy. The BLM says Bundy’s cattle have been trespassing on U.S. land without required grazing permits for over 25 years. However, Bundy said he doesn’t recognize federal authority on land that he says belongs to the state of Nevada.
The BLM released a statement on its website saying, “Cattle have been in trespass on public lands in Southern Nevada for more than two decades. This is unfair to the thousands of other ranchers who graze livestock in compliance with federal laws and regulations throughout the west. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the National Park Service (NPS) have made repeated attempts to resolve this matter administratively and judicially.”
Did you know the Bureau of Land Management has snipers? Apparently they do, just like every other agency in our paramilitary super-State. BLM troops were deployed to the area, tensions mounted… and then things got really unsettling, because the Bundy family dared to exercise their First Amendment rights outside the designated First Amendment Area. No, seriously, the feds set up a First Amendment Area. It’s surrounded by one of those orange rubber fences, and helpfully marked with a sign:
(Image courtesy of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, which notes this little citizen corral is located “several miles from Bundy’s ranch and even farther from the federal government’s corral of ‘trespass cattle’”, which might help explain why it’s empty.)
So what happens if you try doing First Amendment stuff on the wrong side of that orange fence? Back to KSL News for the answer:
The situation escalated Saturday after Cliven Bundy’s son, Dave Bundy, 37, was arrested. Members of the Bundy family had gathered to film and take pictures of the removal of their cattle in an effort to document the event, according to Cliven Bundy’s daughter, Bailey Bundy Logue.
The family members had parked on the side of Nevada state Route 170, but the highway was included in the temporary closure of public lands, according to BLM representative Kirsten Cannon. Dave Bundy was arrested and cited with a criminal charge of refusing to disperse and resisting officers. Cannon said all public lands are closed within the designated closure area during the removal of the trespassing cattle.
Logue said Dave Bundy was taking pictures and recording on his iPad when he was asked by federal employees what he was doing. Logue said that Dave Bundy told the BLM workers that he was “exercising (his) First Amendment rights.”
“He did not resist arrest, but they continued to beat him,” Logue told KSL. “They put him on the ground and were standing on his head and had a dozen officers on top of him and dogs.”
The Bundy family was asked to leave the premises after Dave Bundy’s arrest. Logue said that there were snipers and uniformed men on the scene during the cattle impoundment.
“That’s scary,” Logue said. “I was angry, but there was nothing I can do. We were so outnumbered. With nothing but weapons of our cameras, we did our best at taking pictures. But when you’re in that situation your mind is not thinking very straight.”
Dave Bundy’s act of renegade photography landed him in custody until Monday. The Bundy family put together a rally of about a hundred people, which presumably managed to avoid straying into non-First-Amendment zones, because there were no arrests. But then there was another, less peaceful protest on Wednesday, and the dogs and tasers came out. One of Bundy’s children was reportedly hit with a stun gun several times, and Bundy’s sister was knocked down. (Content warning for some rough language, not to mention rough treatment, in the video below.)
The situation has drawn greater interest as it escalated (including the apparent involvement of some militia groups, according to another Las Vegas Review-Journal article, although as of Wednesday the “militia mobilization” apparently consisted of three guys, two of which were wearing guns.) The governor of Nevada and one of its Senators have also weighed in:
Gov. Brian Sandoval on Tuesday slammed the BLM for creating an “atmosphere of intimidation” and called on the agency to dismantle two “First Amendment areas” it set up for demonstrators well away from any roundup activity.
The former federal judge said he told the agency “that such conduct is offensive to me and countless others.”
“No cow justifies the atmosphere of intimidation which currently exists nor the limitation of constitutional rights that are sacred to all Nevadans,” the Republican governor said.
On Wednesday morning, before news broke of the scuffle between protesters and the BLM, Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., sent a statement expressing “great disappointment with the way that this situation is being handled.”
Heller said he spoke to newly confirmed BLM director Neil Kornze and “told him very clearly that law-abiding Nevadans must not be penalized by an over-reaching BLM.”
“After hearing from local officials and residents, and receiving feedback from the Nevada Cattlemen’s Association in a meeting this morning, I remain extremely concerned about the size of this closure and disruptions with access to roads, water and electrical infrastructure,” Heller said. “I will continue to closely monitor this situation, and urge the BLM to make the necessary changes in order to preserve Nevadans’ constitutional rights.”
If the Bundys and their supporters want Nevada’s other Senator to get involved, they should either apply for a federal grant to subsidize their cowboy poetry, or accuse the Bureau of Land Management of secretly working for the Koch Brothers.
As for the legal dispute at the heart of the standoff, The Blaze has a good concise summary. While Cliven Bundy has a few points that make sense, including the observation that his family has been grazing on the land since before the BLM even existed, he hasn’t been doing well in the courts over the past few decades:
The fight began when Bundy stopped paying the Bureau of Land Management’s grazing fees in 1993, arguing in court filings that he had no obligation to pay the agency because his Mormon ancestors had worked the land decades before the agency was formed.
Bundy claims he owes roughly $300,000 in back fees, but the federal government says it’s more than that.
“That number, the $300,00, that was a number estimated through Sept. 11, 2011,” Bureau of Land Management spokeswoman Kirsten Cannon said in a phone call with reporters Monday. “Since then, the estimated amount owed by him – so including the $300,000 – totals $1.1 million.”
In addition, the cost of removing the rancher’s cattle from the public land will cost taxpayers roughly $3 million, according to initial estimates.
The land was finally declared off-limits for cattle in 1998 and became a designated habitat for the federally protected desert tortoise. That same year, a judge ordered Bundy to remove his cattle. He refused to comply.
All throughout his decades-long struggle with the federal government, the veteran rancher has maintained that Washington has no right to order him from the land.
The Bureau of Land Management has “overstepped its boundaries by not letting me access my rights, not recognizing state’s sovereignty, and having over 200 armed officers watching our every move and stealing our cattle,” Bundy said.
The rancher’s wife, Carol, said there now appear to be snipers stationed around the family’s 150-acre ranch.
Asked about the Bundys’ sniper claim, Cannon would neither confirm nor deny the allegation.
“There are law enforcement and other personnel in place as needed to ensure that the BLM and National Park Services employees and contractors are able to conduct the operation safely,” Cannon said. “Specific operations information regarding this impoundment will not be released.”
You just knew there was going to be a federally-protected critter in there somewhere, didn’t you? So maybe Governor Sandoval needs to rethink his position that “no cow justifies the atmosphere of intimidation,” because maybe a tortoise does. Cow flatulence has been linked to global warming, you know. Tortoise farts have no such environmental impact.
At heart, this is a story about a long court battle grinding to its bitter end, and since every judicial decision seems to have gone against Bundy, it was inevitable that some action would be taken. The BLM maintains it’s trying to handle the situation in the safest way possible, but a lot of what they’ve been doing seems very questionable, especially since they haven’t been good at answering questions about it. (Among other inquiries greeted with a shrug are why Dave Bundy was held in custody, exactly what the government plans to do with the confiscated cattle, what’s up with those “First Amendment areas,” and whether or not they’ve got snipers patrolling the family lands – an accusation leveled by the Bundys that BLM spokespeople will neither confirm or deny.)
Given how much time the BLM had to prepare for its eventual move against the Bundy cattle, that’s a disappointing performance. Hopefully they’re doing some hard thinking about how to de-escalate the situation.