PUBLIC LANDS

Bundy sold 1,300 cattle even as he fought federal roundup

Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy sold close to 1,300 cattle over the past five years and found business in a handful of states even as the federal government sought to purge his herd from public lands, according to state records reviewed by Greenwire.

Bundy sold or transferred cattle to nearly two dozen recipients in Nevada, California, Arizona, Utah and Kansas, according to branding records kept by Nevada's Department of Agriculture.

Nearly half the cattle were trucked about 100 miles northeast from Bundy's Bunkerville ranch to an auction yard in Cedar City, Utah, and 165 cattle were shipped west to a sale yard near Bakersfield, Calif.

Most cattle, about 800, ended up in Utah, according to the records.

George Jessop, of Virgin, Utah, took title to more Bundy cattle -- 153 -- than any other single buyer. All his acquisitions occurred in 2014, the year the Bureau of Land Management tried but failed to impound Bundy's herd.

The inspection records show Bundy at times did brisk business fattening his cows for free -- and without a permit -- on the public lands around Gold Butte. While BLM and federal judges declared Bundy's cows to be trespassing on the federal estate, that didn't deter dozens from doing business with him.

The records shed light on Bundy's ranching operation, which federal prosecutors last month described as "unconventional if not bizarre."

Bundy, 69, was arrested in Portland, Ore., on Feb. 10 while on his way to support the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge led by two of his sons. He faces 16 felony counts that could keep him behind bars for the rest of his life, in addition to allegations that could force him to forfeit $3 million in property.

Information about the success of his ranching business is in the public's interest given that he requested, and was granted, a taxpayer-funded lawyer to represent him before the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon, according to The Oregonian. He filed a financial affidavit to demonstrate his eligibility for a public defender, but it is sealed from the public.

Bundy on Friday made his first appearance before a federal judge in Nevada, the state in which he was charged. U.S. Magistrate Judge Carl Hoffman expressed doubt that Bundy would qualify for a lawyer at public expense, according to the Associated Press. Hoffman gave him until tomorrow to hire a lawyer or file revised financial disclosure forms, AP reported.

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While the inspection records do not show revenue from the sales, one transaction alone in January 2014 for 67 cattle could have been worth $100,000, experts said.

Under Nevada law, a brand inspection is required each time livestock change ownership or whenever they cross state lines or pass into another inspection district. The inspection sheets indicate who owns the cattle and to whom or to where they are being transferred. They also indicate how many cattle are being transferred and their age, brand and type, such as heifer, steer, cow or bull.

BLM in 2012 estimated Bundy had roughly 900 cattle roaming the Mojave Desert landscape around the 160-acre ranch, with about one-fourth bearing Bundy's brand.

While that's an average-sized ranch by Nevada standards, the branding records suggest the operation has been less than efficient, livestock experts said.

"These numbers are representative of a ranch of this size operating below average in production," said Flint Wright, animal industry administrator at the Nevada Department of Agriculture.

Records suggest Bundy sold about 260 cattle annually, a rate that would be considered "very low" for a herd the size of his, said David Stix, president of the Nevada Cattlemen's Association.

Stix said he aims for an 80 to 90 percent calf crop. That means a herd of 1,000 should give birth to about 900 calves annually, and of those, about 800 ought to survive for potential sale, he said.

Ranchers with a herd Bundy's size should also annually cull 50 to 75 cows and bulls, typically the older ones, for slaughter, he said.

The brand inspections seem to substantiate some of the criticism levied by federal prosecutors.

"He does not vaccinate or treat his cattle for disease; does not employ cowboys to control and herd them; does not manage or control breeding; has no knowledge of where all the cattle are located at any given time; rarely brands them before he captures them; and has to bait them into traps in order to gather them," prosecutors wrote last month in a memo to the district court in Oregon.

Bundy's cattle numbered over 1,000 head at the time of BLM's 2014 roundup, with some straying as far as 50 miles from his ranch and into the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, they wrote.

Bundy could not be reached for comment while in federal custody, and his public defender in Oregon, Noel Grefenson, did not return a phone call or email.

But his family members last week disputed the accusations of mismanagement, saying the size of Bundy's herd has been greatly exaggerated, according to Fox News.

"Our cattle is our livelihood; we take good care of them. They are well fed and receive plenty of water," one unnamed family member said, according to Fox News. "The manure fertilizes the ground, their grazing prevents fires. I would invite anyone to come out here and see for themselves that the cattle is well looked after. The government wants to paint us as inhumane, but we are a God-fearing family. We wouldn't have a livelihood if we destroyed our own land and cattle."

Bundy spoke of his ranching operation in an hourlong video segment last year with James Yeager of Ammonation, an ally of the ranch.

Bundy said his cattle are specially adapted to thrive despite meager desert rainfall. Each animal needs 100 acres to stay fed, far more than their kin in wetter states.

The family must be doing something right to have eked out a living for over a century, he said.

"We've been producing off this land for 138 years, continuously been producing beef," he told Yeager. "We are making beneficial use of a renewable resource that nobody else can harvest."

Nevada brand inspections do not disclose what individual buyers paid for Bundy's livestock, so it's pure speculation what kind of revenue Bundy's ranch generates.

Some transactions may have fetched a decent haul.

One brand inspection from January 2014 shows Bundy transferring to Jessop of Utah 37 heifers and 30 steers, a transaction that could have been worth roughly $100,000.

That assumes those cattle were sold while they were young and weighed around 500 pounds, which is typical for Nevada ranchers, according to Stix. It also assumes Jessop paid the going rate for feeder cattle in 2014, a year when prices were sky high thanks to drought that kept supplies low.

In 2014, a 500-pound steer could bring $3 to $3.20 a pound and a heifer in that weight range could fetch $2.50 to $2.80 a pound, Stix said.

BLM's attempted roundup didn't put an immediate chill on Bundy's sales. He sold or transferred 385 cattle in 2014, more than in any other year since 2011. Yet he only moved 129 cattle last year, the lowest yield over that time span.

The fact that Utah was the destination for most of Bundy's cattle is somewhat ironic given that county and state officials vigorously opposed BLM's plans to bring impounded cattle there in 2014.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (R) said state veterinarians were concerned that the animals may not have received regular health maintenance and could carry livestock diseases. "Serious illnesses, such as Trichomoniasis, external parasites, Bovine tuberculosis and Brucellosis, could be present in the herd," Herbert wrote in an April 2, 2014, letter to BLM Director Neil Kornze.

Utah's two Republican senators and Republican Reps. Chris Stewart, Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz concurred in a letter to Kornze one week later, warning that BLM's auction plan "may endanger the health of Utah herds and place Utah state employees and other Utah residents in danger."

But Bishop last week said it's "not an issue" if Bundy sells his cattle in the Beehive State.

"The issue was if BLM confiscates his cattle and then sells them at auction at Cedar City," he said.

According to Utah agriculture officials, cattle imported from out of state for sale at an auction yard must have a "certificate of veterinary inspection" issued by an accredited veterinarian. For example, bulls over 1 year old must be tested for trichomoniasis, and breeding heifers 4 months to 1 year old must be vaccinated for brucellosis, which is documented with an ear tag and tattoo, said Barry Pittman, the state veterinarian.

"Over the last five years, 517 cattle from the Bundy Ranch have come into the Cedar Auction," Herbert spokesman Jon Cox said in an emailed statement. "If cattle came in with a Nevada Brand Inspection and had not been vaccinated, the vet at the auction vaccinated them."

Click to see the inspection records for 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015.

Reporter Corbin Hiar contributed.

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