Cliven Bundy is behind bars, but his cows remain at large.
The longtime nemesis of the Bureau of Land Management faces charges that could keep him imprisoned for the rest of his life. His cattle linger as an ecological scourge to the Mojave Desert northeast of Las Vegas.
The Bundy herd, last estimated at 1,000, has trampled sensitive soils, devoured native saplings and bedded down against Native American artifacts. One of Bundy's bulls attacked a Nevada wildlife official, while others have run roughshod over a community garden and a golf course, BLM said.
BLM and its allies -- following court orders -- want Bundy's cows gone from the public lands surrounding his Bunkerville, Nev., ranch, and particularly Gold Butte, a 350,000-acre mesa of Joshua trees, cacti and creosote bushes below the snow-dusted Virgin Peak.
But removing Bundy's ornery, battle-tested herd -- estimated by one Nevada official to be worth up to $800,000 -- will be expensive, logistically difficult and potentially dangerous.
"It's like hunting cape buffalo," said Ken Mayer, the former director of Nevada's Department of Wildlife. "They're nasty, they're smart, and they won't hesitate to charge."
Bundy's militant followers may be the bigger hurdle.
The last time BLM tried to impound Bundy's cows in 2014, the then 67-year-old rancher mustered an armed rebellion that threatened agency employees and the Utah-based contractors it hired to gather and sell the animals.
While Bundy -- whom the Justice Department described as "lawless and violent" -- and his sons Ammon and Ryan are behind bars, there's no telling what would happen if BLM tried again to remove his cattle.
Seven days into BLM's failed 2014 roundup, over 400 protesters surrounded BLM officers at the impoundment site, with scores openly carrying firearms, the Justice Department said. BLM rangers were "dangerously exposed" at the bottom of a wash, where they saw "too many guns to count," according to DOJ's indictment. BLM that afternoon called off the roundup, and the 400 or so cows it had penned were released back into the wild.
BLM said Bundy's cattle "continue to be in trespass" but that there are "no plans for a gather at this time as we continue to cooperate with the Department of Justice on the on-going legal matter."
The next roundup is "not going to be easy," said Rob Mrowka, a biologist at the Center for Biological Diversity who has lobbied for decades for BLM to remove Bundy's cows. "I think the price is going to be a lot more when you add the risk."
It's unclear what kind of resistance Bundy or his sons Ammon or Ryan could muster behind bars without access to the ranch or social media, which was a key catalyst in the 2014 standoff. Two others whom the government accuses of helping rally militants to Bunkerville -- Ryan Payne and Pete Santilli -- are also in custody.
Bundy has been grazing his cows without a permit since 1993, and multiple federal judges have ordered they be removed. Since 2012, he has made threats against contractors hired by BLM to round them up.
After a roundup, unbranded cattle -- estimated to be three-quarters of Bundy's herd -- would become the property of Nevada. BLM normally allows the responsible rancher the opportunity to reclaim his or her cattle -- if they agree to pay any past-due grazing, trespass and administrative fees (in Bundy's case, more than $1 million). If the rancher refuses, BLM could then get permission from the state brand inspector to sell the cattle.
At Bundy's melon farm along the banks of the Virgin River about 90 miles northeast of Las Vegas, ranching operations are continuing as usual, said a man named "Skipper" who identifies himself as the family's head of security. Skipper said he was briefly detained and questioned by the FBI at the time of Cliven Bundy's arrest Feb. 10 but that he's back at the ranch.
From jail, Cliven calls the ranch each day with a list of ranching tasks, Skipper said. Family members including Arden Bundy, 17, Cliven's youngest son, are setting traps to brand newly born cows. A son-in-law comes every other weekend to help.
There's been "talk and rumors" of a BLM roundup, "but there hasn't been any traffic out here," Skipper said.
Bundy's cattle, a Brahman-type breed, have been bred to survive in harsh environments.
Their ancestors came from India and have highly developed sweat glands that help them thrive in the arid Mojave, according to Oklahoma State University's Department of Animal Science. Centuries of meager food supplies, insect pests, parasites and diseases have made them remarkably resilient, the department said.
They also don't take kindly to humans.
Around 2010, in the pre-dawn hours, a state wildlife employee was out at the Overton Wildlife Management Area in the lower Virgin River Valley to irrigate crops when he was chased by one of Bundy's bulls, Mayer said. The next morning, the bull chased him again, this time ramming his forehead into the employee's buttocks, leaving it "totally black and blue," Mayer said.
"The kid says, 'I quit,'" said Mayer, who was forced to announce the closure of a dove hunt to protect public safety. "The sooner [BLM] can get the cows off, the better from a resource perspective."
Threats against contractors
Yet if BLM does plan another impoundment operation, it may be difficult to find a willing contractor. Three of the previous firms BLM has hired have faced protests and intimidation from the Bundys.
In 2012, as BLM was planning an earlier impoundment operation, only one firm, Cattoor Livestock Roundup Inc. of Nephi, Utah, bid on a contract to round up the cows. It was to be paid nearly $1 million, federal contracting records show.
But Cliven Bundy sent the Cattoor family a public notice that he would do "whatever it takes" to stop what he called the theft of his cattle. Calls to Cattoor for this story were not returned.
"I will serve you and yours and company a constructive notice making you and anyone aiding or abetting with you accountable for all loss, damages, or expenses to my life, liberty, and property," Bundy warned the company. "RANGE WAR!"
The government called off the 2012 impoundment out of concern for the safety of its employees and the public. In 2014, as BLM prepared the next roundup, its contractors faced similar threats.
'R' Livestock Connection LLC of Monroe, Utah, was the only firm to bid on a $78,000 contract in March 2014 to auction Bundy's cows.
On April 2, 2014, three days before BLM began its roundup, Ryan Bundy and others entered the company's property to threaten "force, violence and economic harm," according to the DOJ indictment. He threatened to shut down the business and led weekly protests outside the auction yard, telling one local paper that the company's owner, Scott Robins, "sold his soul to the devil to sell a few stolen cattle."
"They threatened me and everything else," Robins said in a short telephone interview with Greenwire, declining to discuss the incident. "They [the Bundys] got themselves into trouble, and they can get themselves out of trouble."
Shayne Sampson of Meadow, Utah, had signed a separate contract with BLM worth $966,000 to round up Bundy's cows, beating out one other firm for the job, records show.
Yet on or around March 28, Cliven and Ryan Bundy and others blocked a convoy of vehicles containing horses and equipment that were to be used in the roundup, "confronting and threatening civilian contractors," DOJ's indictment said. It's unclear if Sampson was involved. He did not return multiple calls.
During the 2014 roundup, Cliven Bundy sent fresh notices to Sampson, Robbins, Cattoor and several other livestock operators not to aid BLM in "cattle rustling," according to an article in The Spectrum newspaper in St. George, Utah.
"First, I'm fighting this thing on paper," Bundy told the newspaper. "Then I'll go after the contract cowboys. And then if I assume they're [BLM] ready to go [confiscate the cattle] then I'll go after them with the media, with 'we the people' and whatever else it takes."
David Stix, president of the Nevada Cattlemen's Association -- of which Cliven Bundy is not a member -- said contractors may be leery to wade into the controversy.
"Who's going to put up with that?" he said. "It's not worth it."
Stix said his association has no position on what BLM should do, but he emphasized that Bundy's refusal to follow federal grazing law is unacceptable.
"We expect a little bit more out of our members," he said. "Please do not judge us by one individual."
Federal prosecutors last week called Bundy's ranching business "unconventional" and "bizarre" in a memo asking a federal judge to keep him behind bars.
Unlike most ranchers, Bundy lets his cows run wild, does not vaccinate or treat them for disease, does not manage breeding or take them off the lands to feed them in the off-season, and generally has "no knowledge" of where they're roaming at any given time, the memo says.
"Raised in the wild, Bundy's cattle are left to fend for themselves year-round, fighting off predators and scrounging for the meager amounts of food and water available in the difficult and arid terrain that comprises the public lands in that area of the country," it adds.
National Park Service officials and conservationists who have visited the Gold Butte area have reported seeing dead and emaciated cattle.
"The cows are suffering, too," said Annette Magnus, executive director of Battle Born Progress, a Nevada-based communications firm that works on public lands issues and is part of a coalition working to protect Gold Butte. "It's not just the land, there is animal abuse actually happening."
Don Alt, chairman of the Nevada Live Stock Association, a fringe ranching group aligned with the Bundy family, declined to comment on Bundy Ranch. The Bundy family has not responded to emails or picked up their phone.
Under Nevada law, any cattle BLM rounds up without brands would become the possession of the state, which would first try to identify any potential owners and then seek to sell them. Cows with Bundy's brand -- a "V" over "O" -- would be dealt with by BLM. The agency could hold them as collateral to get Bundy to pay past grazing fees, trespass fines and administration expenses.
Court records show the federal government spent at least $287,000 from March 2011 to March 2012 simply to count the trespassing cows in an operation that involved 27 staff. Out of 903 cattle observed then, 232 had Bundy's brand, said Lauren Brown, a BLM restoration ecologist, in a declaration to the U.S. District Court for the District of Nevada.
A 2013 order by Judge Lloyd George gives BLM open-ended authority to "seize and remove" any of Bundy's trespass cattle.
Flint Wright, an animal industry administrator for Nevada's Department of Agriculture, said he believes Bundy's herd is worth between $700,000 and $800,000. That's based on the assumption that it contains about 600 breeding cows worth $1,000 each, and 400 "open cull cows" whose beef is worth 40 cents per pound and weigh on average 900 pounds.
"These figures are estimated at approximately 40 percent of standard market prices, based on the types of cows, quality of those cows and how they have been managed," Wright said.
Conservationists have said little about Cliven Bundy's cows since his arrest weeks ago in Portland. But it won't be long before they escalate calls for BLM to remove them, as they have for many years.
They're pushing legislation backed by Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nev.) to create a 350,000-acre Gold Butte National Conservation Area, while also pushing President Obama to declare the lands a national monument.
BLM court filings from 2012 document a long list of ecological harm.
Agency trespass investigations show that cattle have "trampled" and "denuded" sensitive soils, increasing the risk of erosion and invasive and noxious weed infestations. Cows have also damaged Native American petroglyphs by "bedding down and rubbing against these irreplaceable archaeological resources," Brown wrote.
Restoration efforts have been stymied.
BLM forfeited a $400,000 matching grant from the Walton Family Foundation for a $1 million restoration project in 2013 and 2014 that would have benefited the endangered southwest willow flycatcher. The presence of cattle thwarted the project, Brown reported.
"The removal of trespass livestock from these areas is therefore critical to the BLM's ability to protect and restore high priority habitat for a wide range of species, including federally listed, candidate, and state listed sensitive species," she wrote.
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