Mitch3_1Officials of the Bureau of Land Management insist Bunkerville cattle rancher Cliven Bundy “owes the American taxpayers in excess of $1 million” in unpaid grazing fees for the past two decades.

That was their excuse for closing off 600,000 acres of federal public land a month ago and confiscating Bundy’s cattle. But when armed protesters showed up, the Director of the BLM Neil Kornze — a former aide to Sen. Harry Reid and a former Elko resident who had just been named to head up the agency — abruptly called a halt to the roundup.

“Based on information about conditions on the ground, and in consultation with law enforcement,” Kornze said in a statement, “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.”

He called the confiscation “a matter of fairness and equity.”

At one time there were 52 cattle ranchers in Clark County. Largely as a result of BLM “fairness and equity,” Cliven Bundy, whose family has run cattle in the area since long before there was a BLM, is the last of the breed.

According to Bundy’s daughter, Shiree Bundy Cox, her great-grandfather bought the rights to the Bunkerville allotment around 1887 and sold them to her grandfather who turned them over to her father in 1972. The family paid for water improvements, fences and roads out of their own pockets.

Then the BLM started charging fees to “manage” the federal land. “They were supposed to assist the ranchers in the management of their ranges while the ranchers paid a yearly allotment which was to be used to pay the BLM wages and to help with repairs and improvements of the ranches. My dad did pay his grazing fees for years to the BLM until they were no longer using his fees to help him and to improve,” Cox writes online.

Twenty years ago the BLM went to Bundy and told him he could not graze in the spring. This was supposed to prevent his cows from stomping on endangered desert tortoises as they emerged from hibernation.

Range biologist Vernon Bostic wrote in “Ecology of the Desert Tortoise in Relation to Cattle Grazing” that the greatest death loss of desert tortoises during the drought of 1981 occurred in an allotment where cattle had been excluded. In an adjoining allotment where cattle grazed all year long, the tortoises were relatively unaffected by the severe drought. “The reason is simple: Cows provide tortoises with both food and drink.”

The whole premise that Bundy owes $1 million in unpaid fees, fines and interest is suspect.

Bundy explained to the BLM that he had no feed lot in which to hold cattle and his only option would be to sell his cattle for slaughter in February and buy new stock to put out to pasture in July. But from July to February desert range cattle actually lose weight.

When Bundy was told he could not graze in the spring, he also was told to remove all his water tanks and the lines that fed them from local springs. The reason for this has never been explained, and never mind that water rights are granted by the state and the federal government is not allowed to interfere with those rights, as several federal court cases have upheld.

So, if he had paid his fees and grazed when the BLM told him he could, Bundy would have gone out of business. It is a Catch-22. Pay your fees and go broke. Defy an unsound and unscientific order and get broken. If Bundy had written the BLM a check for grazing his cattle when the BLM said he shouldn’t, they would not have accepted it.

Even though Bundy is grabbing the headlines, the same thing is happening quietly all over the state.

J.J. Goicoechea — veterinarian, rancher, chairman of Eureka County Commission and past president of the Nevada Cattlemen’s Association — says Nevada has lost half of its breeding cows over the past three years because of BLM regulations — approaching 300,000 head, down from more than a million in the 1980s.

Bundy, 68, is the last rancher standing in Clark County. It is questionable, in the face of BLM mismanagement, how long he and other cattlemen can survive.

Which is the endangered species? Tortoises? Or cowboys?

Thomas Mitchell is a longtime Nevada newspaper columnist. You may share your views with him by Read additional musings on his blog at