The Bunkerville War — Part II
The fight for land rights
In 1848, as part of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (ending the Mexican/American War), the United States purchased from Mexico the entire southwestern region of the United States. The federal government has since then owned much of the land that is now Nevada, including an allotment of land previously permitted to Cliven D. Bundy, which was called Bunkerville Flats, Nevada.
In 1861, the Nevada Territory was partitioned from the Utah Territory and, in 1864, Nevada became a state. Nevada’s original settlers in the 1840s and 1850s were Mormons from Utah with a few small-time farmers from Louisiana, Arkansas, and Mississippi sprinkled in. After the War of Yankee Aggression, much of the southwest land was settled by rural farmers, homeless squatters, and small-time ranchers from former Confederate states. Most of these people sought to escape the ravages of war — some of them were fugitives from the law. The ancestors of Cliven David Bundy (b. 29 April 1946) were Mormons from Utah.
Since 1934, federal land in Nevada has come under the management of the US Forest Service, BLM, or its predecessor, the US Grazing Service. More than two-thirds of Nevada’s 70-million acres fall under the authority of BLM; nation-wide, the agency manages around 18,000 grazing permits and leases — in Nevada, around 700. In every permit agreement, the federal government asserts its control over the leased land, so there is no question about whose land it is.
Cliven Bundy’s father, David Ammon Bundy, first obtained a grazing permit from the BLM in 1954. Bundy maintained these permits until 1993. Five years earlier, in 1989, the federal government declared the desert tortoise an endangered species and began to develop a plan to save this creature within Clark County, Nevada.
The government announced their project by asserting that its purpose was “to meet the needs of the tortoise and the people,” such as Bundy, who owned a permit to use the tortoise’s land. In 1991, the US Fish and Wildlife Service approved a short-term conservation plan that set aside 22,000 acres of tortoise habitat around Las Vegas … and did so in exchange for strict conservation measures on 400,000 acres of BLM land south of the city. This arrangement eliminated livestock grazing and imposed strict limitations on off-road vehicle use within protected areas. Unhappily for local ranchers, the final arrangement in 1992 doubled the size of the conservation area, which by then included Bunkerville Flats.
But 1992 wasn’t the first time ranchers complained about the federal government’s control of western lands. Following passage of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 came the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion — when cattlemen, miners, loggers, developers, and farmers argued that federal land ownership harmed their states’ economies and violated the principles of federalism and states’ rights.
The Sagebrush Rebellion demanded that the federal government transfer its control over large amounts of this land to individual states, giving state legislatures the right to make their own decisions about land and resource management. This “rebellion” was diffused when Ronald Reagan appointed James Watt, a Sagebrush Rebellion leader, to serve as Secretary of the Interior. Watt devised and implemented a “good neighbor” policy to manage federal lands, a cooperative arrangement that seemed to appease the sagebrush rebels.
After the government’s adoption of the Turtle Policy, it asked Bundy to return his grazing permit for a refund. Bundy refused, and as a protest of the government’s actions, he also declined to renew his “modified” permit in 1993. In 1994, BLM canceled Bundy’s permit to access Bunkerville Flats. Concurrently, however, Mr. Bundy asserted his “vested right” to graze his cattle on land that had been in use since 1954.
Photo:By Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America – Cliven Bundy, CC BY-SA 2.0,
Bundy ignored federal court orders to quit the federal land; not only that, but Bundy also refused to pay his back permit fees or stop grazing his cattle at Bunkerville Flats. Accumulating Fees and court-ordered fines soon approached $1-million. In contrast, excluding Bundy’s fines and fees, ranchers’ total unpaid costs in arrears nation-wide amounted to only $237,000.
The Battle of Bunkerville
On 24 March 2014, BLM announced its intention to close federal lands known as Gold Butte, Mormon Mesa, and Bunkerville Flats. The purpose of the closure was to “limit public access, use, and occupancy during impoundment of illegal cattle to ensure the safety and welfare of the public, contractors, and government employees.” The closure project involved a jaw-dropping 802,571 acres of land, only some of which fell under BLM management. According to federal officials, the confidential nature of on-going law enforcement operations prevented them from giving their standard 30-day notice of intended action.
Reportedly, the federal government offered to buy Bundy’s cattle, resell them, and provide him with the proceeds of the sale — no doubt, less what Bundy owed BLM in accumulated fees. Mr. Bundy declined BLM’s offer. Between 5 and 9 April 2014, federal contractors using horses and a small helicopter penned around 400 head of cattle on the closed range — ninety percent of those animals were Bundy’s. During the roundup, six animals died, four of which the government euthanized because they posed a threat to contractors or employees. One was a prized bull. Ultimately, government officials suspended the roundup out of concern for the safety of the wranglers.
Cliven Bundy wasn’t taking any of this lying down. At the end of March, he sent out notices asking for the help of fellow ranchers and other sympathetic organizations. The media categorized these organizations as “right-wing” and “domestic terrorist.” It was inspired rhetoric designed to incite violence between federal law enforcement officers and citizens who have complaints about the federal government’s perceived abuses.
Whether the complaints were legitimate is for the courts to decide, which they apparently did when they ruled in favor of the federal government. Bundy, however, claimed that federal courts are always rigged in favor of the government and against the people. One can understand how a citizen might develop this view given the fines assessed against Cliven Bundy, as compared to, say, the government’s refusal to prosecute Hillary Clinton for violating federal secrecy statutes.
But if there was any doubt about the Bundy family’s argument, Cliven’s son Ryan cleared the air in plain-spoken language: “If they are going to be out in the hills stealing our property, we will put measures of defense. And they have always asked us, ‘What will you do, what will you do?’ and our stance has always been we will do whatever it takes. Open-ended. And because of that, that’s why they are scared, because they don’t know to what level we will go to protect our property, but we will protect our property.”
In early April 2014, armed citizens from across the United States joined in peaceful protests against the government’s trespass-roundup in what has become known as the Battle of Bunkerville. BLM officials were “concerned” that protests might turn into a twenty-first-century range war. Accordingly, federal officers sought to limit these peaceful protests by establishing “first amendment zones.” Nevada governor Brian Sandoval almost immediately stepped in and demanded the removal of these federal restrictions.
On 10 April, protestors impeded a BLM vehicle refusing to grant passage until federal officers explained what they were doing on Bunkerville flats with specialized equipment. Addressing the protestors, Cliven Bundy doubled down by questioning the BLM’s jurisdiction, authority, and police power. Cliven may have been a bit over-wrought when he added that Nevada ranchers were ready to take over the country.
Later, after protestors tied up traffic on I-15 for more than two hours, they converged on Gold Butte, where Bundy’s animals were being held against their will; a tense hour-long standoff occurred. Protestors armed with high-powered rifles took up positions that gave them a good field of fire into the BLM’s position.
Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie (in office from 2007-2015) opined that escalation of the problem rested squarely at the feet of BLM, who largely ignored his advice on handling the matter. Gillespie’s under-Sheriff, Joe Lombardo (who succeeded Gillespie in 2015), stated that the standoff was volatile. Angry armed citizens seemed anxious for a fight. “We were outgunned, outmanned, and there would not have been a good result from it [violence].” The standoff at Gold Butte was resolved when the BLM signaled that the government would return Bundy’s cattle a short time later.
Officials and citizens from several western states seem to support Cliven Bundy’s claim that the federal government was acting beyond its constitutional authority. Politicians in neighboring Arizona, for example, vocalized their support of the Bundy claims — one of whom characterized the Bundy standoff as being similar to the incident in Tiananmen Square. It was a suggestion that the federal government had become as abusive as the Red Chinese in Beijing — an opinion shared by many conservatives throughout the country.
Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval sided with Bundy and the protestors, stating publicly that the federal government’s intimidation of the American citizen, its denial of constitutional rights to citizens with whom the federal government disagrees, is unjustified. Members of the Nevada Assembly agreed with Sandoval and voiced their support of Bundy’s refusal to give in. Michele Fiore thought that it was time that the federal government return all federal land in Nevada to the people of Nevada.
Politicians in Utah insisted that federal bureaucrats had become de facto paramilitary units and SWAT teams — they called for the disarming of bureaucrats. In a letter to the White House, Texas Congressman Steve Stockman accused the Obama administration of conducting unlawful paramilitary raids against the United States citizens.
There has been no shortage of infantile rhetoric on both sides of the Bunkerville War. The political left claims that anyone who stands up for their Constitutional rights is a domestic terrorist; the political right responds by declaring the federal government under the Democratic Party in flagrant disregard of the U. S. Constitution. The truth may lie somewhere in the middle of this petty speechifying but still, in 2021, there has been no overtures of peace from either side. The matter remains “unresolved.”
Postscript: The usual conclusion. In this case Reid, his offspring, money and China.
- Dick, E. The Lure of the Land: A Social History of the Public Lands from the Articles of Confederation to the New Deal. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1970.
- Ferrara, D. “Cliven Bundy Case Dismissal Upheld by Appeals Court.” Las Vegas Review-Journal. 6 August 2020.
- Gates, P. W. The Jeffersonian Dream: Studies in the History of American Land Policy and Development. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1996.
- Maughan, R. “A Brief History of the public lands, the BLM and grazing.” The Wildlife News online, 23 April 2014.
- Robbins, R. M. Our Landed Heritage: The Public Domain, 1776-1970. Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1976.
 On average, the federal government owns 60% of the land in twelve states within and west of the Rockey Mountains.
 The “good neighbor” authority allows federal land management agencies to enter into agreements with state land management authorities to accomplish projects critical to maintaining healthy and productive forests. However, given the number of forest fires that develop annually in the western states, it would appear that work to remove dead underbrush — the kindling materials from which forest fires are conceived — has been less than effective … and perhaps intentionally so.
This is part II. For part 1: