Across the rugged frontier of the Western United States, thousands of livestock ranchers work each day to care for their livestock and also care for the land. In the case of many western ranchers, there is a good chance that at least part the land their cattle graze is owned by the federal government.
A good chance because the federal government owns roughly 660 million acres across the United States, including one out of every two acres in the West. Of the nation’s federally-owned lands, more than 90 percent are located in the West. Some of that land is in national parks or other historic areas, some is leased for oil and gas exploration, some for recreation, but some of it is leased to individuals to graze livestock on throughout parts of the year.
Livestock ranchers pay a grazing fee established by a presidential Executive Order in 1986. Currently, the grazing fee is $1.35 per animal unit month, or the amount of forage needed to sustain one cow and her calf, one horse, or five sheep or goats for a month. The figure is adjusted each year according to current private grazing land lease rates, beef cattle prices and the cost of livestock production. The $1.35 per AUM is the same level as it was in 2013.
Beyond paying a grazing fee, federal lands ranchers are responsible for managing the land and resources, including caring for wildlife habitat, managing noxious weeds, and decreasing potential wildfire fuels. While the relationship between the federal government and ranchers is a well-understood business agreement in most cases, for one Nevada the rancher, the relationship has turned south.
Over the past couple of weeks, the story of Cliven Bundy and his family’s decades’ old battle with the federal government has come to a head and a “Range War” has begun.
Bundy and his family previously held grazing permits on approximately 600,000 acres in an area owned by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management called Gold Butte. In 1998, this land was declared habitat for the desert tortoise, which is protected under the Endangered Species Act, making it off limits for cattle grazing.
The Bundy’s battle with the BLM started five years earlier. The family stopped paying the federal grazing fee for the land in 1993. According to Bundy, he owes, but refuses to pay, the federal government back-fees totaling approximately $300,000. BLM, however, estimates that figure is more than $1 million.
In July 2013, Bundy was issued a third Court Order directing him to remove his livestock from the land within 45 days. If the animals were not removed, according to the Order, they could be seized by the BLM. Since that time, the family refused to comply with the Order.
"Cattle have been in trespass on public lands in southern Nevada for more than two decades. This is unfair to the thousands of other ranchers who graze livestock in compliance with federal laws and regulations throughout the West,” the BLM website announced. “An impoundment of cattle illegally grazing on public lands is now being conducted as a last resort."
The round-up and seizure of cattle began last week, and as of April 7, the BLM had impounded 134 head of Bundy’s 908 “trespass cattle.” To call it a smooth process, though, would be a stretch as the round-up has included armed security from the federal government, hundreds of supporters of the Bundy’s cause, an arrest of one of Bundy’s 14 children and vows from Bundy to do “whatever it takes” to protect his cattle from seizure. Both the Bundy family and the BLM have cited threats being made against them, neither appear to be backing down and emotions are running high.
So who’s at fault? Is this another case of the federal government trampling the rights of individual citizens? Or are the Bundy’s at fault while the feds try to enforce 20-years of violation of the law? The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. If the family has held grazing permits for generations, they should know the rules they are expected to follow – the rules that thousands of other ranchers comply with each day. However, it’s unclear why such force by the federal government is necessary to enforce the law.
Federal lands’ ranching has a rich heritage and continues to be a driving force in rural economies across the West. These ranch families not only raise and care for livestock, but they also provide critical care to vast portions of the land, water and resources across the West. This one case involving the Bundy family and BLM may be grabbing headlines across the country, but it is not indicative of the overall industry. And let’s hope it doesn’t come to define federal lands ranching.
That would be a true loss.
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