Nevada’s animal and environmental advocates are demanding that the Bureau of Land Management take long overdue steps to save Cliven Bundy’s abandoned cattle and, in so doing, the endangered desert tortoise with whom the cattle unhappily coexist.
For 20-plus years, Bundy’s cattle have languished in the dry desert lands of Gold Butte. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Bundy’s “bizarre” ranching operation consists of little to no human interaction, as the cattle scrounge for food and ward off predators until a member of the Bundy clan finally baits, traps and kills them.
Though Bundy lost his grazing privileges way back in 1993, BLM delayed taking any meaningful enforcement action, allowing the herd to multiply. With each passing year, critical habitat for Gold Butte’s endangered desert tortoise is further decimated as the cattle gobble their food.
Relocating the cattle to sanctuaries — though straightforward when the herd was small — would now place a sizable burden on rescue organizations already short on space and funds. Since the BLM’s inexcusable dawdling has gotten the cattle (and the tortoise) into this mess, the onus falls on the agency to get them out, and to do so humanely.
But given the BLM’s long history of cruelty in helicopter roundups of wild horses and burros, advocates are justifiably fearful that the agency will operate with the same brutality in rounding up the cattle. Indeed, despite their recent clashes, Bundy and the BLM are peas in a pod when it comes to their callous disregard for animal welfare.
According to the BLM’s own internal review, previous BLM roundups of wild horses and burros have included instances where animals were “struck in the face,” “kicked in the head” and “repeatedly shocked with an electrical animal prod, sometimes in the face.”
In 2013, a federal judge issued a temporary restraining order halting a BLM roundup after viewing photographic evidence that the agency had used “hot shot/electric prod treatment” on weanlings and had gone so far as to drive horses “through barbed-wire fences.”
The BLM’s failed attempt to roundup Bundy’s abandoned cattle in April 2014 followed these same cruel precedents. Just as the BLM has consistently violated its own protocol by conducting wild horse roundups during foaling season — exacerbating the risk of severe dehydration, exhaustion, and death — the 2014 roundup occurred in the middle of calving season. The agency confirmed that six cattle died in the roundup, two by gunshot.
Rather than attempt another similarly dangerous and expensive removal (the 2014 roundup contract totaled $966,000), the BLM should utilize fertility control, the very same management technique recommended by the National Academy of Sciences.
A more cost-effective and humane option, employing immuno-contraceptives such as PZP (porcine zona pellucida) to manage animal populations, has even garnered the support of the National Cattleman’s Beef Association.
With PZP already having proven effective in a wide variety of hoof stock, including wild cattle, and the lack of a viable humane alternative, administering fertility control drugs to the cattle via dart is a no-brainer. Moreover, once the population has been vastly reduced, sanctuaries will then be able to take in what remains of the herd. In the meantime, the BLM must take animal rescue and advocacy organizations up on their offer to provide feed for the cattle.
Of course, this whole debacle — the cattle neglect, the desert tortoise harassment, the destruction of public lands, the waste of taxpayer dollars — could have been avoided if our laws properly recognized animals as living beings with rights and interests.
But as long as animals are considered mere property, agencies like the BLM will continue to pour public resources into the protection of cruel animal industries without accounting for their true cost.
Stephen Wells is executive director of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, a San Francisco-based nonprofit law firm that works to protect the rights of animals.