Cliven Bundy’s standoff happened in 2014 near Mesquite, Nevada.
It was a near miss. We came close to another Waco, which was not an incident to repeat. This one would have involved the cattle industry, BLM, and wildlife conservation.
Cliven Bundy is a Nevada rancher. In 1993 he decided to stop paying the fees for permits to allow his cattle to range on public lands. But for 20 years Cliven continued to graze his 700 head of cattle and across more land than before. On public land. And never paid the $16 a year per cow that every other rancher pays. Three different courts found him guilty of not doing so.
Wildlife conservationists questioned why the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) suffered Bundy. The canary in this coal mine, or the spotted owl in the tree sit, happened to be the desert tortoise. Overgrazing posed a threat to this protected species. I’ve worked a bit with tortoises, living in the Sonoran Desert. Their habitat requirements are sensitive. And cattle can be especially destructive to arid environments.
BLM had shown very little progress in protecting their habitat in the area. The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) gave the intent to sue and followed with a press release (here). Finally, the BLM notified Cliven that his cattle would be removed from public lands. Cliven and sons called on libertarian extremists for protection from the federal government.
Saturday, April 5, wranglers and Federal law enforcement officers began removing illegal cattle. On Wednesday, April 9, friends, family, and armed extremists began arriving in protest.
To be clear, American ranchers are a positive and valuable part of our history and culture. The ranching community does not generally associate with the Bundys. In fact, the majority of ranch life distanced themselves from this event. Even Cliven’s neighbors say he’s no bastion of American freedom (here). In other instances, the cattle industry and wildlife conservation work well together (here). Most Second Amendment, gun rights advocates are also responsible members of their communities.
But that’s not what happened in Bunkerville, Nevada. What followed was an armed standoff between right-wing extremists and law enforcement officers. Citizens aiming firearms at federal officers (like here). Right here in our own United States. The tension escalated over four days. To avoid an incident like Waco or Ruby Ridge, the US government retreated on April 13.
This conflict orbited the subjects of public lands and wildlife conservation. More than one opinion compared Cliven Bundy to the Sagebrush Rebellion of the 60s and 70s. Those events saw many–including President Ronald Reagan–opposing federal management of public lands.
I have to question why neither the CBD nor the BLM took a more collaborative approach. The BLM seems to have ignored a festering problem for two decades. The CBD tends to file lawsuits at the drop of a hat. Preservation through top-down intimidation seems counterproductive. Especially when and where political divisiveness is a potential powder keg. Wildlife and environmental advocates should be at center, bringing people to the table. As it happened, the CBD became the catalyst for a confrontation that could have been a green Waco. What organization or agency would want that in their repertoire?
The media captured one video of a Bundy extremist on horseback, with the caption, “This is how the West was won.” In fact, the West was won by a lot of people dying. Most of them innocent and murdered in the heat of the moment over something no one can remember. If this kind of violence erupts, conservationists would do well to be otherwise engaged in something that matters.
My feeling is that the issue could have been better handled if…
- Someone contracted the US Institute for Environmental Conflict Resolution to defuse the situation beforehand.
This post was updated in January 2018. When I first posted this April 2014, I observed that this situation was far from over. Sure enough…. Click here to read what happened next!