November 12, 2008

Like their cattle on BLM land, family of ranchers stands firm

Bureau of Land Management workers restore plants that had been damaged by the prohibited practice of cattle grazing in Nevada’s Gold Butte area. Courtesy of the BLM

By Phoebe Sweet
Las Vegas Sun

Don’t let the 1,000-pound weight difference fool you — burrowing desert tortoise and plodding cattle are both big grazers.

They both eat tender new shoots of wildflowers and grasses.

That’s why advocates for the tortoise say keeping cattle out of officially designated critical tortoise habitat, including parts of the proposed Gold Butte National Conservation Area, is so important.

Try telling that to the Bundy family, organic-melon farmers and cattle ranchers who have been grazing herds on federal land in the area since the late 1800s. The Bundys, led by family patriarch Cliven Bundy, have been back and forth – and in and out of court – with the Bureau of Land Management over their cattle for a decade and a half, according to records obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request by the Center for Biological Diversity.

Bundy admits he has cattle roaming free on federal land. But he claims to have forage and access rights to land in the Gold Butte area and own range improvements there.

According to BLM records that were part of the request, however, all of Bundy’s rights have been terminated.

The Bundy family is one of a handful of Nevada ranching families whose cattle might still trespass on federal land. They’re throwbacks to the Sagebrush Rebellion, whose members wanted state and local governments to take control of federal lands in several Western states.

“These cases, some of them, have been going on for decades,” said JoLynn Worley, BLM spokeswoman. Although most of the cases have been resolved over time, she said, Bundy’s has not.

As Rob Mrowka, public lands conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity, sees it, the law is clear and the cattle should have been cleared out of Gold Butte long ago. Because they compete with the tortoise for food in an unforgiving desert, “the tortoises are being put at risk when the law ... says they shouldn’t.”

The cattle aren’t just a problem for the tortoises, though. They’re also setting back efforts to restore and replant areas of Gold Butte scorched by 2005 wildfires, said Angie Lara, the BLM’s Las Vegas Field Office manager. The cows trample and feed on the tender young plants the BLM has planted in the fire-ravaged areas.

That, in turn, sets the area up for future wildfires, by priming the ground for highly flammable, nonnative grasses, Kirsten Cannon, a spokeswoman for the BLM, said.

“The concern is that as native plants are reestablishing themselves, the soil is especially delicate,” she said. “The crust is rebroken and it offers an opportunity for invasive species to come back in.”

Nevada ranchers hold about 700 legal livestock grazing permits with the BLM in the state.

But the Bundys lost the right to graze cattle in the area in the early ’90s after they stopped paying grazing permit fees, according to records. About the same time, Clark County bought up the rest of the grazing rights in the area to create a safe home for the tortoise. But since then, the BLM has documented cattle there bearing the Bundy brand on numerous occasions.

Many of the cattle grazing today have no brands, which makes it impossible to prove they’re Bundy cattle, according to the BLM.

Officials might just want to ask Bundy, however. He told the Sun about two dozen of his cattle are roaming free in the adjacent Lake Mead National Recreation Area, where they are also prohibited from grazing.

But no matter who owns the cattle tromping around Gold Butte or how they got there, they need to be removed from Gold Butte, various federal agencies and conservation groups agree.

But the BLM’s Las Vegas Field Office manager said it isn’t as simple as just rounding up the cattle and auctioning them off. The BLM is working with several state and federal agencies, including the National Park Service, which oversees the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, to figure out how to get the cattle out of tortoise territory.

Bundy said that if the BLM attempts to remove the cattle he will contact the sheriff, and we could have an old-fashioned range war stand-off on our hands.