In backing down, feds have made Bundy situation worse

Now that the Bureau of Land Management and federal authorities have stopped gathering Cliven Bundy’s cattle, which were illegally grazing on federal land, are things better or worse?

Bundy is still in violation of federal law and court orders. He still owes more than $1 million to the federal government for grazing fees that he stopped paying more than 20 years ago. His cattle are still grazing on federal land, and the government gave back about 400 cows picked up by contractors.

Only now, Bundy and the legion of his supporters — some armed and claiming to belong to militia groups — have learned a new lesson: If you defy the federal government under threat of armed violence, there’s a chance the federal government will back off. And that’s a very dangerous message indeed.

Federal officials haven’t surrendered their cause, however: BLM Director Neil Kornze said in a statement that “…we have made the decision to conclude the cattle gather because of our serious concern about the safety of employees and members of the public.” In other words, the government was worried Bundy supporters might start shooting at government agents, who would then be forced to defend themselves with deadly force.

And, as Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespiesaid at the start of this crisis, “No drop of human blood is worth spilling over any cow, in my opinion.”

Indeed. But that still leaves us with the pressing question: What is the government supposed to do when people break the law and decide to flout federal authority behind the shield of armed protesters? At what point does enforcing the rule of law require government agents to begin arresting those who would interfere with carrying out the orders of a federal court?

That’s the concern raised by Rob Mrowka, senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity. “The BLM has both a statutory and a sacred duty to manage our public lands in the public interest, to treat all users equally and fairly,” he said in a statement released over the weekend. “Instead it is allowing a freeloading rancher backed by armed thugs to seize hundreds of thousands of acres of the people’s land as their own fiefdom.”

Mrowka continued: “The BLM is setting a dangerous precedent in announcing that it will pick and choose who has to follow federal laws and who it will reward for violating them. It is opening the door for every business to stop paying for the water, wood, grass and minerals they take from our public lands. It is encouraging armed extremists to take over whatever lands it wants and threaten the public and public land managers.”

Or, as columnist Dallas Hylandwrote in a thoughtful piece on the St. George News website, “The stand-down was necessary to prevent bloodshed, but it must be recognized that if Bundy and his multitude of supporters, militia friends, and even family members who broke the law, are allowed to go unpunished, anarchy will follow. Other groups, emboldened by the appearance of forcing a stand-down, will only continue to gain momentum. And furthermore, law enforcement as a whole will be rendered impotent as average people with disputes with current laws begin to wonder if they too can call a militia to force the police to leave them alone.”

And Roger Taylor, a retired BLM manager who worked in Arizona, said the decision would be problematic, too. “The [agency] is going to be in a worse situation where they will have a much more difficult time getting these cattle off the land and getting Bundy in compliance with regulations,” he said, according to Reuters. No doubt.

There can be no doubt whatsoever that Bundy is in the wrong here. Not only has he repeatedly broken the law, he doesn’t even understand it. His nonsensical legal arguments have been repeatedly dismissed. He told The Guardian newspaper that he doesn’t recognize the BLM director’s jurisdiction or authority to make arrests. He’s even said he doesn’t “recognize the United States government as even existing.” He’s demanded that county sheriffs across the country disarm federal agents, and repaid Gillespie for the sheriff’s help in negotiating a peaceful end to the standoff by blaming Gillespie for failing to disarm BLM officers and promising to do the job himself.

These are not the statements of a rational person, to say the least.

So what now? The BLM promised to continue to to pursue Bundy via administrative and judicial remedies, but the reality is, a court order that’s not enforced by the federal government is simply another piece of paper. It’s entirely likely — assuming the BLM one day returns to enforce the court’s orders — that the government will once again face off with Bundy and his militia gang, and that the threat of violence will once again rear its head. Will the government be prepared to arrest those who would obstruct the lawful process of government administration then? Will rangers be prepared to meet force with force, or have officials decided its simply not worth it? And what message does that send to other would-be lawbreakers, outlaws and insurrectionists?

Things are definitely worse now than they were before.