Over the course of the past few days, a situation has been unfolding in Mesquite Nevada, where federal agents have been rounding up and seizing rancher Cliven Bundy’s cattle. In response, hundreds of armed militia men and states’ rights activists came to his support, causing a tense scene in the Mojave desert.
The conflict is all over land, where Bundy’s family has been letting their cattle graze since the 1870s. What at first may seem like a story of the big bad government trampling on the rights of a poor and defenseless rancher goes much deeper.
The land where Bundy has been letting his cattle graze is owned and maintained by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), a part of the federal government. The BLM has been leasing the federal land to Bundy so his cattle can graze on it. The grazing land, coincidentally, is also the home to the desert tortoise, a federally protected species. Bundy’s and other rancher’s cattle have posed a threat to the docile tortoises, as they occasionally trample them and destroy their nests. The desert tortoise population in the area have decreased by 90% and the females only breed when they reach an age of 15 years old. Even then, only 2% of the hatch-lings survive, so it is understandable why this is federally-protected land.
Bundy argues that the land where his family’s cattle have been grazing on for generations does not belong to the federal government, but rather to the state of Nevada, therefore federal agents have no right to take his cattle. This is where Mr. Bundy is incorrect.
The treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended the Mexican-American in 1848 gave the United States federal government control of a vast swath of land that was once under Mexican control, including what is now California and Nevada.
Any previous privately-held property in this area would be honored by the United States. However, Bundy stated that his family didn’t come into the area until the 1870s, at which point they didn’t even bother to buy the land from the federal government. Since then, the Bundy’s, as well as other ranchers, have been leasing the land from the federal government in order to let their cattle graze there. Neither Bundy nor his family have ever had a deed to this land nor paid property taxes on it, meaning neither him nor his family have ever owned this land. He even agrees that he was paying the grazing fee. If he had owned the land, he would have had no need to pay these fees.
In 1993, Bundy stopped paying the paltry fee of $1.35 per month per cow-calf pair. Yet he continued to take his cows to graze here illegally and without charge every year for 20 years, at the expense of the American (specifically Nevadian) taxpayer. Bundy argued that since his ancestors have worked the land since the late 19th century, he has rights to the land. Contrary to popular belief, that’s not how property works. He is, however, willing to pay the fees– but only to Clark County (which doesn’t own the land) and not to the BLM (which does). Bundy’s 20-year hiatus of not paying fees yet continued grazing have racked up a hefty fine of $1.1 million, which is being footed to the taxpayers.
So the federal government went through the very standard procedure of rounding up Bundy’s cattle to prevent him from racking up further fines and decimating more of the tortoise’s habitat.
Let’s look at this from a much simpler perspective. Let’s say that BLM, instead of an agency’s acronym, were an individual’s initials. Let’s say it stood for Billy L. Morton. And instead of grazing land, let’s say it was an apartment. So Bundy’s family has been living in the apartment some 140 years and for 120 of those years, they’ve been paying their lease. Billy L. Morton, as the property owner, has every right to not renew the Bundy’s lease for whatever reason. Bundy stopped paying his lease and continued to live here and use the services of this apartment, at the expense of the common folk. Now is this in any way fair?
What further goes to show that Bundy has no right graze his cattle there is the fact that there have been two separate federal court rulings telling him to remove his cattle or face getting them confiscated by federal agents. A separate judge also prohibited from interfering in the roundup process. Despite all these warnings over the course of two decades, Bundy refused to heed this warning and is now screaming “TYRANNY!”
This, of course, became a rallying war cry for militia members and supporters of state’s rights and they all conveyed on Bundy’s ranch. Despite the huge mountains of evidence that Bundy has absolutely no right to this land, many of these radicals will support Bundy simply because he is opposing the federal government, no matter how wrong he is. This has caused great tension in the area and his supporters actually managed to free some of his cattle from federal agents. Federal agents restrained themselves from doing much for fear that this might escalate into violence.