Conservation leaders say repeated court decisions that have allowed the Bundy family to retain cattle and grazing rights in Nevada set a bad precedent for public land management in the future.
“I hope that one day, justice will be served and we can move on from talking about the Bundys,” said John Gale of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. Gale, who grew up on a fifth-generation Idaho ranch that leases federal land, said, “This is not the Wild West any more. This is a nation of where the rule of law reigns, and the fact is we’re allowing an armed assault on our public lands and the people who manage them.”
Members of the Bundy family, who led an armed protest of law enforcement attempts to remove their cattle from leased federal land, won another court case this week and were allowed to leave prison without conviction.
“I’m not used to being free,” rancher Cliven Bundy commented as he exited the Las Vegas courthouse following the ruling. “I have been a political prisoner for more than 700 days.”
Bundy was referring to the 2014 standoff between his family and their heavily-armed supporters against Bureau of Land Management and law enforcement officials’ actions to forcibly remove cattle from the family’s corrals outside of Bunkerville. Bundy had refused to pay more than $1 million in federal grazing fees and fines.
“The mishandling of this case by federal prosecutors will simply embolden extreme actions against our public lands and the federal employees charged with their stewardship,” said Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.
“Many citizens of the West take issue with some public land management decisions, but there is a legitimate process, well-established by law, to provide significant opportunity for public input and influence on these decisions. When an extreme minority is permitted to use lawlessness and threats of violence to occupy public land, it threatens the rights of many for the benefit of very few—a profoundly un-American course of action,” Fosburgh said.
Though the Bundy family has repeatedly claimed that it is not constitutional for the federal government to own land, the nature of their court victories has been procedural. Chief U.S. District Judge Gloria Navarro ruled earlier this month that federal prosecutors acted with willful disregard for constitutional due process rights of 71-year-old Cliven Bundy, sons Ryan and Ammon Bundy, and Montana militia leader Ryan Payne. Judge Navarro severely criticized the prosecution for failing to provide evidence to the Bundy’s defense team.
Last year, the Bundy sons and their supporters were acquitted for their 2016 occupation of Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. The Bundy family led the 41-day armed occupation of the refuge in order to further make their case that federal ownership and management of land is not legal. One of the Bundy family supporters, LaVoy Finicum, was shot and killed by police after appearing to be reaching for a gun during the Malheur controversy.
“Cliven Bundy and his followers are lawbreakers who continue to disrespect our government, our public lands and waters, and the citizens who own them. They employed scare tactics and lawlessness to steal from the American people,” said Land Tawney, President and CEO of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. “Any missteps taken by federal investigators or prosecutors do not change these fundamental facts. Law abiding citizens must not tolerate the willingness by Mr. Bundy and his comrades to flout the rule of the law and abuse our publicly owned lands,” Tawney said.
“The Bundys are no better than poachers who steal your public resources then respond with a riot to cover it up,” Tawney continued.
Many see the issue as part of a broader effort to delegitimize federal ownership of land in the West. Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, said prosecutors had bungled the case, allowing the Bundys to get away with breaking the law. “The failure of this case will only embolden this violent and racist anti-government movement that wants to take over our public lands,” Suckling said.
John Gale shares those concerns. “These are criminals, allowed the privilege of using a public resource. You don’t see this kind of thing happening in a normal person’s life,” Gale said. “You can’t decide to just not pay your rent without consequences. These guys are not champions for public lands ranchers. They’re giving ranchers a bad name.”
The Bundy family has returned to their Nevada ranch, and say they will continue to defy federal orders to remove their cattle from the public land they refuse to pay to continue renting. They recently traveled to Montana for a rally with supporters, where they promised to keep traveling the West to build support for their campaign slash federal ownership of land. Conservation groups say they will continue to make the case for public lands as well as calling for the Bundys to be prosecuted for breaking the law.