Just when you thought range wars were a thing of the distant past, a battle between cattle barons and sheep herders that was a staple of those old black and white Hollywood westerns that gave us the young John Wayne, along comes Clive Bundy.  His white hat firmly atop his grey-haired head, he hitched up his blue jeans, saw red and said "Oh hell, no!" when the Bureau of Land Management came to collect on a debt. "Your cattle or your money," they said.

An overheated Bundy actually suggested a “range war” if BLM tried to round up his stock, calling them “cattle thieves.”  His bluster worked. Galloping down out of the Rockies to help Bundy fend off the evil clutches of big government was a citizen's mob of well-armed freedom fighters, second amendment types who suddenly had what they thought was good reason to load up their weapons and face down an overreaching arm of the hated feds in Washington. 

For those of you who know some of the more arcane bits of America's earliest dustups with any kind of government, this was reminiscent of the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794. George Washington initiated the first use of the Militia Law of 1792 which set a precedent for the use of a well-regulated militia to "execute the laws of the union and suppress insurrections."  Washington was asserting the right of the federal government to enforce order in one state with troops raised in other states. 

The problem faced by the BLM cowboys charged with gathering Bundy's cows?  They weren't a well-regulated militia and they were seriously outgunned. It was painfully obvious that executing their orders to round up Bundy's herd would mean blood be shed and hell would be paid.  The feds, readily aware of the still raw feelings after Ruby Ridge and Waco, scanned the scene, blinked and stepped back. 

Neil Kornze, the blinking BLM Director, said, “Based on information about conditions on the ground, and in consultation with law enforcement, we have made a decision to conclude the cattle gather because of our serious concern about the safety of employees and members of the public.”  The citizen's mob prematurely but enthusiastically celebrated a victory. It was just a battle, not the war.

The government will not go quietly. Bundy still owes more than $1 million in fees dating back to 1993 for his use of public land.  The courts have ruled twice that the debt is justified. Just last year, a federal judge enjoined him from grazing his cattle on federal land.  He promptly ignored the order. The BLM insists he has to pay up or forfeit his cattle, claiming it's only fair given that 16,000 ranchers in Western states follow the rules.  There is a big bill still to be paid and a precedent of non-payment that will not be allowed to stand. 

Bundy's defense is based on his belief that the land is family property that his ancestors have worked since settling in that area over 130 years ago.  He claims that his ownership predates the formation of the BLM, giving him rights that predate and trump the federal government's involvement. He says he only owes about $300,000, still a sizeable unpaid debt.  And there is one other problem, Nevada became a state in 1864, approximately 20 years before Bundy's Mormon ancestors claimed the land.  The area wasn't an untamed territory anymore, its citizens had already agreed to abide by the laws, rules and regs of a federal government a distant 2400 miles away.

Bundy’s fight has many right wing pundits and media outlets rallying to his cause. A Google search turns up support from Alex Jones’ Infowars, Pete Santelli’s Internet radio show, the Drudge Report and Glenn Beck’s The Blaze. All of them are playing the angle of a lone cattlemen fighting against unwarranted government encroachment.  Other media are writing about his unpaid debt and his willingness to use public lands for private gain.  Harry Reid's possible involvement for personal gain has been mentioned by both sides.  One breathless,  hair-on-fire report claims that the U.N.'s nonbinding Agenda 21 is the secret driving force.

Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval, fearing that some gun-toting hot head would fire the first shot, urged calm, peace and tranquility. “No cow justifies the atmosphere of intimidation which currently exists nor the limitation of constitutional rights that are sacred to all Nevadans. The BLM needs to reconsider its approach to this matter and act accordingly,” he said.

It's time to step back from this precipice and reflect on several issues.  The federal government owns about two thirds of the land in the 12 western states and over 85% of Nevada.  As the landlord of record, they rent some public lands for private use - grazing cattle, for instance.  Do they have the right to control the use of leased land? 

They've allowed Bundy's debt, be it a million dollars or three hundred thousand is irrelevant, to accrue for two decades.  It should have been collected or dismissed long ago. Bundy is also grazing far more cattle than the land will support, doing serious damage to the ecosystem.  What should be a reasonable penalty for ignoring the limits to which he had agreed long ago?

Let's pay attention to Governor Sandoval, though.  No cow is worth gun fire and violent death.  Let's place all the issues on the table and discuss them calmly.  If you're too angry to talk rationally and your hair is on fire, please take your guns and go home.