Updated November 28, 2022 - 1:00 pm
It’s been nearly nine years since the Bureau of Land Management engaged in an armed standoff with Cliven Bundy and his supporters over grazing rights on federally owned property.
Now, the BLM is considering making improvements to some of the same property, which six years ago was designated as a national monument.
BLM has scheduled meetings for Tuesday and Wednesday to discuss what improvements residents would like to see made to Gold Butte National Monument. The 300,000 acres of desert is sacred to the Moapa Band of Paiute Indians and the Las Vegas Paiute Tribe. Petroglyphs, agave roasting pits and shelters dating back over 12,000 years can be found on trails, on the sandstone and in the canyons.
But the Bundy family, which has owned a ranch just east of the monument for 150 years, continues to graze cattle across Bunkerville, the small city where the Bundy ranch and the national monument sit. The government attempted to round up Cliven Bundy’s cattle while disputing grazing fees and the revocation of open grazing rights, but after an armed standoff against federal agents in 2014 and several subsequently dismissed cases, the cattle continue to roam.
“It was always this juxtaposition of we’re going to protect this place but no one is dealing with the Bundys and the Bundys continue to break the law with no consequences,” said Center for Biological Diversity director Patrick Donnelly. “The government won the battle and the Bundys won the war because they have no consequences for what they’re doing. We say it’s protected but is it protected in name only?”
The federal cases against Bundy and his family were dismissed, but Donnelly said local wildlife, including fish, turtles and native hoofed animals are facing the harshest consequences from the roaming cattle.
After heavy rains, the Virgin River can flow several feet wide through Bunkerville. Two fish that live only in the river, the Virgin River chub and the bonytail, lay their eggs and feed on the sediment kicked up in storms.
Donnelly said cattle grazing through the river step on the endemic fish and their eggs and destroy the nutrients the fish need to survive. On land, Donnelly said, the cattle compete with native bighorn sheep and deer for grass, and they’re known to crush the habitat of endangered tortoises.
“These are huge animals not adapted to the ecosystem,” Donnelly said. “They break up the soil crust. They collapse the tortoise burrows.”
When the tortoise was added to the Endangered Species Act in 1990, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service required Clark County to prepare a mitigation plan, describing how it would protect the reptile while the county grew. That mitigation plan included the creation of Mojave Max for tortoise education, and stripped all ranchers of their grazing allotments countywide.
In April 2014, hundreds of BLM officers attempted to round up Bundy’s cattle, which had been grazing outside his ranch in Bunkerville even though he no longer held the grazing rights. Dozens of supporters drove in from other states to defend Bundy’s ranch, and in a pivotal confrontation, some perched on an Interstate 15 overpass with guns aimed at federal agents.
BLM called off the roundup, and several attempts to prosecute Bundy and his sons failed. Idaho man Todd Engel, who was sentenced to 14 years in prison for his role wielding a rifle, sued the federal government for $100 million in September 2021 after his case was dismissed.
But Cliven Bundy said he does not recognize any federal government oversight of county land, and continues to graze at least 500 cattle in the area.
“I believe that land belongs to the state of Nevada,” Bundy said in a November interview with the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “I don’t really believe the federal government has any rights to designate it for anything.”
Bundy, 76, continues to operate on hundreds of acres, building makeshift wells within the federally protected area and allowing his cows to graze across what has since been designated as a national monument.
“I try to take care of my rights to grazing, water and access,” he said. “I take care of all those things. As long as we’re using it and respecting it, I hope that’s called taking care of it.”
Two years after the standoff, in December 2016, the area was designated a federal monument by President Barack Obama, but six years later there are few signs identifying trails, no bathrooms, no trash cans, no designated campgrounds and few roads that will show up on a map.
BLM spokesman John Asselin said the agency wants to keep the integrity of the historical, rocky region so there are no plans to build a visitor center or over-urbanize the area with stores, restaurants or large structures,
“Places like Gold Butte, you don’t have cellphone service,” Asselin said. “There’s no communication. You may not see people while you’re out there … You can go enjoy and Gold Butte, but you have to be fully prepared with plenty of water and snacks and have a plan.”
The bureau is hoping input from residents will help it draft possible improvements, and internally the bureau will move funds around its federal allotment, prioritizing the monument land, to build the accommodations. Since 2016, about 30,000 vehicles drove through the federal lands annually, according to digital counters maintained by BLM.
“When the monument was established in 2016, we were looking even prior to that, looking to put together a coordinated activity plan to further protect the area,” said Kathryn Lloyd, monument manager for Gold Butte National Monument. “This is the first formal process moving forward.”
BLM would not comment on the 2014 standoff, but Bundy said he has debated putting a dumpster in the area because he and his family members occasionally clean up trash left around the trails.
“They’ve created a problem by inviting the whole world,” Bundy said. “I don’t want to say that the whole world is trashing it. We’re doing a great job taking care of it. Ranchers always tried to take care of it. My family and I sure have.”
Bundy said that he has enjoyed not seeing any rangers over the last eight years “arresting and harassing people” nearby but that he had no plans to stop any rangers or visitors coming to the area.
“I just can’t recognize the federal government being here on Clark County land,” he said.