Hundreds of federal officers, cowboys and helicopters descended on Cliven Bundy’s backyard Saturday, launching a roundup targeting about 500 head of cattle grazing on government land.
Bundy, the embattled Bunkerville rancher who owes the federal government tens of thousands of dollars in grazing fees over two decades, said from his ranch house about 80 miles northeast of Las Vegas that it only will hurt the “city folks” in Las Vegas who have come to depend on his cattle for their beef.
Because of the government’s actions, Bundy said there’s going to be 500,000 fewer hamburgers per year from his cattle operation.
“Anything is possible,” said the 67-year-old Bundy, speculating that it might even raise the price of beef. “When you take away a rancher’s 500 head of cattle, you’re taking away 500 calves each year, and that can’t be good for anybody.
“But nobody is thinking about that. Why would they? They’re all thinking about the desert tortoise,” he said, referring to one inhabitant of the rangeland in and around Gold Butte that environmentalists say is being harmed by the cattle’s presence. “Hey, the tortoise is a fine creature. I like him. I have no problem with him. But taking another man’s cattle? It just doesn’t seem right.”
The federal government plans to auction off Bundy’s cattle once the estimated 500 head are rounded up, a Herculean task that’s expected to last until mid-May
The operation includes closing off more than a half-million acres of public land in Clark and Lincoln counties and using hundreds of federal agents, contract cowboys and low-flying aircraft.
Agents started the operation Saturday morning, corralling 75 head of cattle into trailers and taking them south to an undisclosed compound along Interstate 15 just outside of Mesquite, Bundy said.
There were no signs of Bundy supporters in the Bunkerville area Saturday, but that doesn’t mean none of them are coming in the days to come. Bundy’s story has grabbed the attention and support of other ranchers in Nevada and Utah.
In all, federal officials say there are 900 head of cattle they have to round up, although Bundy said he only owns 500.
He said each head of cattle that was seized Saturday is worth about $1,000.
He called the government’s actions “pathetic.”
“Or better yet, a form of trespassing, which they say I’ve been doing all these years,” he added.
The Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service and the Lake Mead National Recreation Area don’t see the roundup as trespassing at all. They say Bundy is disobeying the law. And they’ve tried repeatedly to resolve the issue, both “administratively and judicially,” BLM spokeswoman Kirsten Cannon said in a news release.
She said the cattle are “unauthorized” to graze on the land, and that both the BLM and the Park Service have made repeated unsuccessful attempts to put a stop to it.
Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie, whose police department is not participating in the roundup, talked and commiserated with Bundy but also encouraged him to work it out with the federal government so that no violence would erupt.
A similar roundup was scheduled in 2012, but federal officials worried that it could lead to violence and backed off.
Bundy said the land in question might not be his but he has inalienable rights to it. It’s more the state of Nevada’s than the federal government’s, he said.
His family has been raising cattle on that land since 1877.
“The rights were created for us,” Bundy said. “I have the right to use the forage. I have water rights. I have access rights. I have range improvement rights, and I claim all the other rights that the citizens of Nevada have, whether it’s to camp, to fish or to go off road.”
However, conservation groups hailed the decision to rid the land of the cattle, saying that federal judges “again and again” have ruled that the BLM has the right to protect the tortoise by removing the cattle.
“We’re heartened and thankful that the agencies are finally living up to their stewardship duty,” said Rob Mrowka, a Nevada-based scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity, which had filed a notice of intent to sue the federal government for a lack of action. “The Gold Butte area has been officially designated as critical habitat for threatened tortoises — meaning the area is essential to their long-term survival as a species.”
Bundy said it’s ironic that the tortoises are pushing out his cattle operation. He considers himself an endangered species as well.
He has managed to hold out this long while dozens of cattle operations pulled up stakes starting in the early 1990s, mostly due to what he sees as an overreaching, micromanaging government as it applies to public land.
“I’ll never get it,” he said. “If it weren’t for our cattle, there’d be more brush fires out here. The tortoises eat the cow manure, too. It’s filled with protein.”
But mostly, he said he’s worried about the cows having calves.
“I hope they’re protected,” he said. “I hope nothing bad happens to them. I’m already wondering how I’m going to get water out to some of them.”
Henry Brean contributed to this report.
Contact Tom Ragan at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-224-5512. Find him on Twitter @TomRagan2.