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Rancher Cliven Bundy poses for a photo outside his ranch house on April 11, 2014 west of Mesquite, Nevada. (Photo: George Frey/Getty Images) Rancher Cliven Bundy poses for a photo outside his ranch house on April 11, 2014 west of Mesquite, Nevada. (Photo: George Frey/Getty Images)  

Environmentalists pushed Bundy ranch standoff over endangered tortoises

Some have speculated that the standoff between federal agents and Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy is the result of a secretive deal orchestrated by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and political allies in the solar industry.

But the Bundy standoff is really the culmination of a long battle with environmentalists who want to keep federal lands off limits to economic activity. The primary vehicle used by government officials and environmentalists to advance this goal has been the desert tortoise, which was listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act in 1990.

The land Bundy’s family had used for cattle grazing since the late 1800s suddenly became off-limits. Bundy refused to give up his grazing rights and wound up in a prolonged court battle. The court ruled against Bundy in 1998 and ordered him to remove his cattle, or else the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) would do it for him.

The BLM even had a webpage detailing the problems they saw from Bundy’s “trespass cattle” that were grazing in desert tortoise habitat. The webpage, however, was deleted. So was the cached copy after the Bundy standoff became nationwide news.

A screenshot of the deleted page from the BLM’s website shows that environmental groups were some of the main forces aligned against Bundy’s trespass cattle. Environmentalists were pushing for the disputed federal lands to be used as “offsite mitigation” for the impact of solar development. Solar development in the area is heavily supported by Nevada environmental groups.

“Non-Governmental Organizations have expressed concern that the regional mitigation strategy for the Dry Lake Solar Energy Zone utilizes Gold Butte as the location for offsite mitigation for impacts from solar development, and that those restoration activities are not durable with the presence of trespass cattle,” the BLM page says.

“The Center for Biological Diversity has demanded action to resolve trespass in designated critical desert tortoise habitat in several letters,” BLM page notes. “Western Watersheds has requested a verbal status update and later filed a Freedom of Information Act request.”

The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) and the Western Watersheds Project (WWP) have been actively pushing the government to impose heftier grazing fees on cattle ranchers for years, along with pressuring officials to close of huge areas of public lands to grazing and oil and gas development.

“While Cliven Bundy is an extreme example, WWP knows that this sense of entitlement and disregard for federal authority is not uncommon in public lands ranching,” WWP said in a statement. “Bundy’s cows are not the only livestock trampling fragile deserts, precious riparian areas, and imperiling native plants and animals. That is why WWP will continue working to end abusive public lands livestock grazing and to press for meaningful policy reform.”

“We’ve been working for the Mojave desert tortoise since 1997. Challenging the Bureau of Land Management’s grazing practices on arid public lands, we’ve helped protect millions of acres of fragile tortoise habitat,” CBD says on its website.

“It’s so blatant,” says Rob Mrowka, senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity said of Bundy’s trespass cattle in 2009. “Anyone can go out there anytime of the year and see cattle. BLM employees trying to protect sensitive plants and animals are very frustrated. It’s a problem that’s been going on and on.”

In April 2012, the BLM were preparing to remove Bundy’s cattle from federal lands, but mysteriously abandoned the operation — note that this was an election year. CBD filed an intent to sue against the BLM under the Endangered Species Act for failing to remove the Bundy’s trespass cattle that year.

CBD was also enraged when the BLM halted removing Bundy’s cattle this month during a fierce standoff between armed federal agents, Bundy supporters and militia members. The BLM returned the 400 cattle they had rounded up to Bundy, angering environmentalists.

“The BLM has both a statutory and sacred duty to manage our public lands in the public interest, to treat all users equally and fairly,” said Mrowka. “Instead it as allowing a freeloading rancher backed by armed thugs to seize hundreds of thousands of acres of the people’s land as their own fiefdom.”

“The BLM monumentally failed to remove the trespass cattle, collect fees, or protect the land for more than 20 years,” Mrowka added. “Now it backed down in the face of threats and posturing of armed so-called ‘sovereignists.’ This is absolutely pathetic and an insult to ranchers and others who hold permits and pay their required fees to use the public lands.”

The Bundy ranch is not out of the woods yet. CBD and other environmentalists have also promised to hold the BLM to its court-mandated orders to round up Bundy’s cattle.

“[I]t’s clear that the BLM has a legal duty to remove trespass cattle for the land entrusted to it by the American people,” Mrowka said. “It has a moral responsibility to not let armed thugs and threats of violence seize hundreds of thousands of acres of public land for their own. We intend to hold the BLM accountable to the American people, fair play, and to justice.”

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