A decade after Bunkerville standoff, Bundy cattle roam free

By Jennifer Yachnin | 04/05/2024 01:33 PM EDT

Ten years after the weeklong confrontation, the federal government faces paralysis over how to oversee a desert ecosystem.

The Bundy family and their supporters drive their cattle back onto public land outside Bunkerville, Nevada.

The Bundy family and their supporters drive their cattle back onto public land outside Bunkerville, Nevada, after they were released by the Bureau of Land Management on April 12, 2014. Jason Bean/Las Vegas Review-Journal/AP

Beneath a crisp blue sky, a man on horseback dressed in a denim jacket and black hat drives a half-dozen cattle through a sandy wash beneath a freeway overpass in the desert near Bunkerville, Nevada.

The moment is part of a video shared on YouTube by Arden Bundy in mid-February, one of several showing members of his family rounding up stray cows. The scene recalls the much more tumultuous events of April 2014, when armed anti-government activists and Bureau of Land Management agents clashed in a tense standoff — also about cattle — under the same rural Nevada overpass.

On the 10-year anniversary of that weeklong incident — when BLM agents tried and failed to round up cattle for auction to settle nearly $1 million in unpaid grazing fees and trespass fines incurred by Bundy Ranch, the family’s business — it’s also evidence of the federal government’s paralysis over how to oversee a fragile desert ecosystem.


Remarkably little has changed. Bundy cattle continue to roam on federal lands without permits and in areas long since retired from use as grazing allotments, partially to protect vulnerable wildlife. Multiple administrations have come and gone without renewed efforts to seize the cattle, and there is no indication any penalties have been paid.

“Regardless of all the good or bad that has been said of us and this matter, the truth still remains that we did in fact successfully defend our rights and are still here, ranching today, exercising them,” Ryan Bundy wrote in an email Friday.

In a presidential election year, it appears unlikely any federal agency would stage a potentially contentious roundup — or authorize an aerial hunt of feral cattle, as the Forest Service did in New Mexico last year — but changes could still come from a variety of fronts, including two lawsuits accusing the Biden administration of failing to properly manage federal lands.

“There is an institutional inertia to do anything,” said Patrick Shea, who led BLM from 1997 to 1999 during the Clinton administration. “Given the limited amount of personnel, they have higher priorities.”

In the decade since the Bunkerville showdown — which stemmed from a 1998 court order that fined Cliven Bundy, the family patriarch, for each head of cattle he allowed to graze illegally and a subsequent 2013 court order — the dispute became a model for other anti-government protests.

It resulted in numerous criminal trials of the armed protesters who faced off against agents, although federal prosecutors lost some of the most high-profile cases, such as when a judge declared a mistrial and later dismissed the charges against Bundy and two of his sons, Ryan and Ammon. It also raised the profile of individual Bundy family members among far-right activists, with Ryan and Ammon Bundy each launching failed gubernatorial bids.

In the present day, Cliven Bundy, 77, still actively works on his ranch, running an estimated 500 mother cows over 1 million acres of land and making regular range improvements.

“As far as the ranch operation, it’s basically the same,” Bundy said Thursday when asked how his showdown with the federal government and judicial fallout had changed his livelihood.

He acknowledged the cattle roam on the same lands that prompted BLM’s attempted roundup, saying that after the cattle were released, “They went back to their natural habitat.”

Both Cliven and Ryan Bundy defended the family’s continued grazing on lands in the Gold Butte National Monument — designated by President Barack Obama in 2016 — and around Lake Mead National Recreation Area. They reiterated their longtime assertions that the federal government cannot own wide swaths of land, aside from military installations or other buildings.

“Our Constitution doesn’t allow the federal government to own all of this land,” Cliven Bundy said, adding he’d like to see the Supreme Court take up the issue in a new lawsuit, preferably filed by Nevada or another state.

“This has always been my defense: I graze my cattle only on Clark County, Nevada, land and I have no contract with the federal government,” he said.

Bundy added that in the years since the failed prosecution, BLM has not contacted him about his cattle or the funds he was reported to owe. Bundy himself reiterated that he has never received an “invoice or a bill from BLM for any amount.”

Bundy still maintains that he “fired” BLM in the early 1990s, when he refused to sign a new grazing contract with the agency. “I don’t know that I ever owed them any money,” he said.

According to BLM, at the time of the attempted roundup in 2014, Bundy owed more than all other ranchers with late grazing fees on federal lands combined.

The Justice Department declined to answer an inquiry about whether a judge’s 2013 order saying that the Bundy cattle could be seized is subject to a statute of limitations or is still in effect.

In an email, Ryan Bundy also questioned the validity of the Antiquities Act of 1906, the law that allows presidents to set aside existing federal lands to preserve areas of cultural, historic or scientific interest.

He added that even if the law is valid — the Supreme Court precedent has routinely sided with presidential authority to designate sites — the Gold Butte monument is too large to conform with the act’s mandate to be the “smallest area compatible” with the objects to be preserved.

“The act only allows items and a small amount of land under the item to be declared monuments not large tracts of land as what has become the practice of seditious land grabbing presidents and Congress,” Bundy wrote.

The criticisms echo those of Republican lawmakers in Utah, including Gov. Spencer Cox (R), who have filed lawsuits challenging monuments in that state, as well as Chief Justice John Roberts’ own remarks on whether the act should be reviewed.

The Bureau of Land Management declined to answer specific questions about how much Cliven Bundy still owes the agency, whether it will seek to collect on that debt, or if it has received any payments or forgiven any portion of the penalties. A spokesperson for Interior Secretary Deb Haaland similarly declined to comment.

Bundy expressed no concern that the federal government could attempt a new roundup of his cattle in the future or seek to implement liens on the animals to pursue any new trespass fees.

“If they want to, I’ve always said, ‘You’re welcome,’” Bundy said, adding that he would expect an even larger number of supporters to turn out in his defense. “There were thousands here last time, there will be tens of thousands here next time.”

‘Functionally unmanaged’

Environmentalists frustrated with the stalled efforts to remove Bundy cattle from federal land — and halt the degradation of habitat for the threatened desert tortoise — are now challenging the Bureau of Land Management and the Fish and Wildlife Service in federal court.

Although neither case could ultimately dictate the direct removal of the cattle, a victory could force BLM to at least set a timeline for action at the Gold Butte monument, part of the Mojave Desert in southeast Nevada known for its red sandstone, canyons and ancient rock art.

“Right now, Gold Butte is kind of no-man’s land. BLM goes out very infrequently because they consider it to be a safety hazard. There are no developments for visitors, the roads are in dismal shape. It’s functionally unmanaged,” said Patrick Donnelly, who serves as Great Basin director for the Center for Biological Diversity.

The center recently filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Nevada accusing BLM of “unreasonably” delaying a management plan for the 300,000-acre site.

Although the lawsuit does not specifically mention the cattle, CBD noted that “unmanaged cattle grazing is degrading valuable riparian habitat and harming desert tortoises” when it announced the lawsuit.

“It would help enhance the sense that Gold Butte is a managed place and would put pressure on BLM to deal with the problem,” Donnelly said.

Donnelly said that a new management plan would not directly address the Bundy cattle because grazing has been banned on the federal lands since 1998 under the Las Vegas Resource Management Plan. New grazing permits are also specifically banned in the monument’s proclamation.

Previous grazing allotments were retired in the region as part of a plan to encourage development in the 1990s, while preserving more rural areas for the Mojave desert tortoise, which is listed under the Endangered Species Act as “threatened.”

The Western Watersheds Project is similarly challenging the Biden administration in federal court in Nevada, in a separate lawsuit that argues the Fish and Wildlife Service is failing to protect the desert tortoise.

“We would hope in the end to achieve greater compliance” with the Endangered Species Act, said Erik Molvar, executive director of the Western Watersheds Project.

The lawsuit targets both large scale solar projects in the region, as well as the continued presence of Bundy’s cattle.

“At the root of all of it is trying to get the desert tortoise enhancements that were promised,” Molvar said. “For Bundy’s cattle in particular, the lands that have been illegally grazed by the Bundy Ranch over the last three decades have become infested with an invasive weed called red brome.”

That plant, a relative of cheat grass, can contribute to potential wildfires in the region, including an incident in 2005 that burned some 80,000 acres, Molvar added.

Although BLM declined to comment for this story, agency officials have previously acknowledged their awareness of Bundy’s continued violation of court orders to remove his cattle from federal lands.

“Regardless of how the BLM addresses the ongoing trespass issue, the cattle and the [wild] burro within the monument are going to continue to be an issue for years to come,” said Steve Leslie, assistant field manager of the Las Vegas Field Office, during a public meeting in November 2022.

During another public meeting, which also focused on a new management plan for the site, Leslie also responded to questions about illegally grazing cattle by stating that any plans would be “separate from this planning process.”

“It is a very serious issue. I am sorry to say I don’t have an update on how the BLM is going to proceed with addressing the unauthorized grazing that’s occurring in and around the monument,” Leslie said.

These days, the Bundy cattle can readily be seen on social media. More recently, Bundy’s youngest son, Arden Bundy, has begun showcasing the capture of his family’s “wild, mean” cattle around Lake Mead and Gold Butte in a series of videos on his YouTube channel, “The Bundy Ranch.”

Screenshot of a video shared on YouTube by Arden Bundy in mid-February, one of several showing members of his family rounding up stray cows.
Screenshot of a video shared on YouTube by Arden Bundy in mid-February, one of several showing members of his family rounding up stray cows. | The Bundy Ranch/YouTube

The videos, narrated by Arden, began airing in October 2023.

“These cattle belong to the Bundy Ranch, and they are cattle that are on the far ends of our ranch that are wild. That over the years we haven’t been able to catch,” he explained in a video published in early March. “They do belong to us, they’re just long-lost cattle.”

Arden Bundy could not be reached for comment.

Other options

Former BLM officials and other observers suggested it is highly unlikely the bureau will attempt another roundup.

“You could, in the flight of fantasy, simply go out and round up the cattle, but you can see the backlash that would create,” said Shea, the Clinton-era BLM leader.

The Bunkerville roundup and impoundment of cattle marked the largest such effort BLM had undertaken at the time it occurred, according to a Congressional Research Service report published in 2019.

Shea suggested that rather than a physical roundup of the cattle, if President Joe Biden wins his reelection bid, the administration could opt to seek a tax lien or other collection action to address continued damage to the landscape.

The idea echoes a proposal Shea unsuccessfully pursued during his own tenure: “We talked with the Justice Department about doing an enforcement act, and I suggested they put a tax lien on all the cattle so when they sold them we would collect the lien.”

Steve Ellis, who served as BLM’s deputy director of operations during the Bunkerville standoff, said that he wouldn’t recommend the agency attempt a repeat of its earlier actions, although it does need to address the situation.

“I wouldn’t advise using the model that we had tried,” said Ellis, who is now the chair of the National Association of Forest Service Retirees.

Ellis lamented that Cliven Bundy rejected efforts to work with the federal government, including a permit with reduced numbers of cattle and a shorter grazing season.

“This whole thing could have been avoided if Cliven Bundy had just paid his grazing fees,” Ellis said.

Range of impact

Resolving the issue of Bundy’s free-roaming cattle isn’t simply about recovering long-overdue fines or even ensuring the survival of endangered or threatened species, according to the family’s critics.

Mary Jo Rugwell, president of the Public Lands Foundation, BLM’s retirees group, said that Bundy’s scofflaw status reflects poorly on the government’s grazing program.

“This unresolved situation is an insult to the scores of Western ranchers who hold a valid permit, regularly pay their grazing fees and manage their livestock in accordance with their permit,” said Rugwell, who served as BLM’s Southern Nevada District office manager from 2008 to 2011 and retired as BLM Wyoming director in 2019 after a 30-year career at the bureau.

During the 2017 criminal trial against Cliven, Ryan and Ammon Bundy as well as another co-defendant, Rugwell testified that the agency sought to work with Cliven Bundy for years, even after he began stiffing the agency on grazing fees in 1993.

Cliven Bundy challenged the agency in federal court in the 1990s, relying on the argument that the federal government cannot own large swaths of land. He lost a court battle on that issue in 1998, along with a subsequent appeal.

But Bundy ultimately claimed victory — after he spent two years confined in the Southern Nevada Detention Center in Pahrump, Nevada, awaiting trial — over the criminal charges stemming from the Bunkerville standoff. A federal judgedeclared a mistrial in that case after finding that government attorneys had withheld key information from defendants.

That mistrial also negated one option in the government’s ability to address the rogue cattle:forfeiture of criminal assets. A guilty verdict could have allowed the federal government to seize Bundy’s cattle, firearms and real property.

Donnelly, with the Center for Biological Diversity, suggested the failure of BLM to act also weakens the agency’s ability to enforce its rules and regulations across the 245 million acres it manages.

“Is BLM adequate to the task of managing public lands in the West if they’re getting bullied around by a couple of cowboys out on the range? It calls into question some of BLM’s management authority, and that’s a real problem,” Donnelly said. “Letting this go unaddressed for a decade is a complete abdication.”

Many critics also argue that the Bunkerville standoff — which garnered national attention as armed BLM law enforcement faced off with the Bundys and their equally equipped supporters — set off a domino effect that would end in the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol Building on Jan. 6, 2021.

Aaron Weiss, deputy director of the Center for Western Priorities, described Bunkerville as a starting point for a “new era of anti-government activism,” growing out of the previous eras of land management disputes, known as the Sagebrush Rebellions.

“The government blinked and chose not to engage in violence,” Weiss said. “You can draw a straight line from there to Malheur, and you can draw a line from Malheur straight to January 6th,” he added, referring to the armed-occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon in 2016.

A federal jury in Oregon later that yearacquitted all seven leaders of federal charges about that incident, including brothers Ammon and Ryan Bundy.

Political aftermath

In the wake of the Nevada mistrial, both Ammon and Ryan Bundy — the most prominent members of the family involved in the Bunkerville incident other than Cliven Bundy — each made failed gubernatorial bids.

Ryan Bundycampaigned for the Nevada governor’s office as an Independent in 2018, while Ammon Bundy ran first as a Republican and then an independent for Idaho’s top office in 2022.

Although Ammon Bundy lost to incumbent Gov. Brad Little (R), he claimed more than100,000 votes, or about 17 percent of the total.

During his campaign, Ammon Bundy relied heavily on his reputation as an anti-government activist — vowing to seize control of all federal lands in the state if elected — as well as his protests against state efforts to curb the Covid-19 pandemic in early 2020.

More recently, Ammon Bundy became the face of a protest effort against an Idaho hospital involved in the removal of a baby from his home over concerns the infant was malnourished.

He accused the facility, St. Luke’s Regional Health, of child trafficking and harassed medical staff, according to theAssociated Press. Bundy and a co-defendant, Diego Rodriguez, the child’s grandfather, lost a $50 million defamation lawsuit brought by the hospital in 2023.

The Salt Lake Tribune reported earlier this month that Ammon Bundy is believed to be in Utah. He is wanted for arrest in Idaho after he was found in contempt of court.

Still, Ammon Bundy continuesto post videos to his own social media accounts, including a recent video linking the defamation case to the Bunkerville standoff.

“It is common knowledge that the BLM and the FBI hate the Bundys. They will do almost anything to see us destroyed,” Bundy states in the video.

Separately, Ryan Bundy filed a lawsuit against the federal government seeking restitution for “emotional, physical, mental, occupational and financial distress” caused by the Bunkerville trial and their imprisonment at the federal prison in Pahrump, Nevada

“[T]he UNITED STATES spent hundreds of millions of dollars in a multi-state effort to falsely indict Plaintiffs of fabricated crimes purportedly dating back to 2014 and, to that end, forced Plaintiffs to wrongfully endure incarceration and monitoring,” the lawsuit states.

Bundy and his co-plaintiffs are seeking unspecified monetary damages. The Justice Department must respond to the lawsuit by April 30.

On Thursday, Cliven Bundy said he had no plans to mark the anniversary of his showdown with the federal government.

“We’re not going to party and celebrate until everyone is out of jail,” Bundy said, referring to Greg Burleson, who was sentenced to 68 years in prison for his role in the Bunkerville standoff.

Burleson, who is blind, was convicted of threatening a federal officer, obstruction of justice and interstate travel to help extortion. Burleson, now 60 years old, is scheduled to be released in 2043.

Earlier this year the Supreme Court declined Burleson’s request to review his conviction.

Reporter Scott Streater contributed.