Is Cliven Bundy a hero?

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If you’re a supporter of states rights, Cliven Bundy is a hero to you.

If you’re an environmentalist concerned about protecting desert tortoise habitat, you might see him as a threat.

Rob Mrowka of the Center for Biological Diversity fits into the latter camp.

Mrowka complains that after more than 20 years of disputes between the embattled Bunkerville rancher and the federal government , Bundy’s cattle still roam the range that has been closed to them to protect the habitat of the endangered desert tortoise.

“This situation is simply outrageous,” Mrowka, a senior scientist with the center, said. “It’s high time for the BLM to do its job and give the tortoises and the Gold Butte area the protection they need and are legally entitled to. As the tortoises emerge from their winter sleep, they are finding their much needed food consumed by cattle.”

Mrowka may be getting what he wants. The BLM is preparing to send cowboy contractors into the area south of Mesquite that encompasess the old Bunkerville grazing allotment, the Gold Butte area and portions of the Lake Mead National Recreation Area to round up Bundy’s cattle that have foraged on the range since the brawl between Bundy and the BLM began in 1993.

That’s when the BLM limited the number of animals Bundy could allow to graze in his allotment to 150. That was to protect the habitat for the desert tortoise. Bundy said he “fired” the BLM as a land manager after that and stopped paying his grazing fees. In 1998, the BLM canceled Bundy permit for non-payment.

Clark County, to conform with the Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan, purchased those grazing leases from the BLM for $375,000 and then retired them.

But Bundy still ran his cattle in the area, and no longer confined them. Now they ranged into the Gold Butte and Lake Mead Recreation Area.

“Despite having no legal right to do so, cattle from Bundy’s ranch have continued to graze throughout the Gold Butte area, competing with tortoises for food, hindering the ability of plants to recover from extensive wildfires, trampling rare plants, damaging ancient American Indian cultural sites and threatening the safety of recreationists,” Mrowka complains. “Surveys by the BLM have found well over 1,000 cattle — many in easily damaged freshwater springs and riparian areas on public lands managed by the National Park Service and state of Nevada as well as the BLM.”

Bundy refutes those claims. He says his cattle are better stewards of the land than the BLM. He’s installed water sources that also supply wildlife. The cattle prevent the vegetation from getting so dense it becomes a fire hazard. And he says the manure the cattle leave behind has benefited the plant life in those areas.

But the courts haven’t agreed with Bundy and he’s been ordered to remove his livestock. But he disregards the court decisions.

That looked like it was coming to a head in April 2012. The BLM announced it was going to enforce a 1998 court order and begin to round up Bundy’s cattle and sell them.

Insisting the land he grazed his stock on was under the jurisdiction of the state of Nevada and Clark County, Bundy asked Clark County Sheriff Douglas Gillespie to protect his herd from the federal rustlers. When Gillespie declined, Bundy said he would protect his property himself.

The BLM canceled the round up.But now it’s back on. Bundy has been warned and the area has been closed to the public for the BLM and their cowboy contractor to safety roundup the cattle.

The contractors are nervous about Bundy’s veiled threats. They’ve asked reporters to come with them to reduce any chance of violence.

Bundy has lots of allies in his range war with the BLM.

And it’s easy to see why. His family has ranched the area since 1887, Before the Taylor Grazing Act was passed in 1934 and the BLM created, ranchers in the West never staked out claim to all of the land that they ran their herds on. There was no need.

They would lay claim to the land where their homes and buildings were and to the water sources. The range remained open and public property.

But it’s not the Wild West of 1887 any more. It’s not even milder West of 1934. Ranches across the 155 million acres of land the BLM allows grazing on pay their fees for their 21,000 allotments.

Bundy stands against the law of the land.

That can make you a hero in this country. Some laws are poorly thought out and it takes a courageous person to challenge them and get them changed.

But Bundy isn’t trying to get the law changed anymore. He’s just ignoring it and feeding his cattle on public land without paying the fees others ranchers have to relinquish.

It’s still heroic to stand against court orders upholding an unfair law. Bundy’s seeking public support. And that’s the correct way to wage this range war. It will take public pressure to get the law changed.

But if that doesn’t happen, what will Bundy and his family do?

He and his family have said they will protect their property even if local law enforcement won’t.

And that will be the game changer. If there’s any violence or even direct threats of violence, Bundy stops being an American folk hero and becomes just another anti-government nutcase like Randy Weaver, David Koresh or Timothy McVeigh.

He and his family don’t deserve that, and hopefully neither the Bundys nor any of their supporters will cross that line.

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