The Cliven Bundy family actively ranches in the harsh conditions of the deserts of Southeast Nevada where their family has operated for at least six generations (use of the phrase “have been” has been avoided because at this point, the future looks brighter, and it does not appear that they will become “has-beens” any time soon). The Bundy family lives on approximately 150 acres of private property that their Mormon pioneer ancestors settled along the Virgin River in the 1880s. For well over 100 years, the Bundy family’s cattle have been grazing hundreds of thousands of acres of “public” land surrounding their property.
Regardless of any and all other theories, claims or documentation, Bundys claim that their grazing rights are based on the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God, which are encapsulated in universal naltural law principles, such as “first come first served, “possession is 9/10ths of the law,” “we reap what we sow,” otherwise known as the law of the harvest, and “he that takes the risk should receive the reward.” State and federal law recognize these principles and concepts as “prior appropriation,” and “beneficial use.” — i.e., “first in time, first in right,” and “use it or lose it.” These natural law principles are based on the concept that those who take the risk and pay the price to appropriate something that is otherwise unappropriated, and put it to productive, beneficial use, deserve continued use, possession, benefit and enjoyment of that thing, and as long as they continue and maintain such use (use it or lose it), that right should remain their’s.
According to this theory, such principles apply to all forms of real estate-based property rights, including water rights, mineral rights, timber rights and grazing rights. Although a person may not actually hold title to the land itself, through application of these principles, through prior appropriation and beneficial use they acquire the right to use and put to beneficial use certain aspects of that land, or resources that the land produces. This is the basis for the concept of prescriptive rights, adverse possession and pre-emptive rights, and these natural law principles serve as the basis for many of our written laws, including a whole host of federal laws, including all the Homestead Acts that governed settlement of the West.
Basis for the Dispute
For the past 20+ years, the BLM has claimed that the Bundy cattle are trespassing. Most recently, the BLM has claimed that Bundy cattle grazing these ranges total in the neighborhood of 1000 head, and that the Bundy family owes the BLM over $1 million dollars in unpaid grazing fees and penalties.
Cliven Bundy and his family of 14 children maintain that they have a pre-emptive right to graze the land, based on their prior beneficial use. They also claim that there has not been any contract between them and the federal government since the BLM cancelled their “grazing permits” over 20 years ago, after it moved all other ranchers off the land and declared the range to be habitat for desert tortoises, that the federal government maintains are threatened or endangered.
Despite the BLM’s cancellation of his grazing permits, however, Cliven Bundy refused to leave, and has continued to graze, manage and improve the land and put it to beneficial use ever since, maintaining that there is no basis for any financial obligation to the BLM. Bundy does not claim to own the land, or claim any exclusive right to its possession or use, but he does claim to have perfected a legitimate private property right and interest to the forage that it produces, which his family’s cattle have been harvesting and utilizing for well over 100 years.
The Impoundment Effort
In early April, after years of threats and several prior attempts, the BLM hired a private company owned by Shane and Jessica Sampson of Meadow, Utah, and agreed to pay them almost $1 million dollars to gather and impound the Bundy cattle. At first the BLM claimed that the total budget for the impoundment effort was approximately $3 Million dollars. Since then, however, the BLM has admitted that the budget is closer to $5 Million.
In preparation to sell the cattle, the BLM also approached Scott Robins, owner of “R” Livestock Connection, doing business as the Richfield Auction near Monroe, Utah, and offered him extra money to handle disposal of the impounded cattle through his auction. Unlike other ranchers and cattle operators, however, who typically just take their cattle to the auction and pay a pre-determined commission fee based on the prices the cattle bring, the BLM allegedly offered Robins extra money in advance to take the impounded cattle and sell them. According to sources who have spoken on conditions of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak, Robins justified taking the up-front money by using it to help improve his facilities to better handle the cattle.
One unusual aspect of the impoundment effort has been the military-like security measures the BLM has taken, including the deployment of snipers, SWAT teams and an army of hundreds of armed federal agents, and dozens of escort vehicles. With helicopters, air support, and a heavily armed security detail, along with Shane Sampson and his cowboys on the ground, the whole operation has attempted to operate with the precision of a military operation in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Unlike somewhat similar BLM cattle impoundments in the past, where most people seemed to be content to just stand idly by and have had little to say about the BLM’s heavy-handed tactics, in this case people started coming out of the woodwork to protest the federal government’s actions. Slowly but surely the protest gained traction.
At first, most elected leaders stood back and had little to say. From start to finish state cattlemens’ associations in Nevada and Utah, as well as the vast majority of cattle ranchers have stood back, had little to say, and seemed to be content to let the Bundy family attempt to fend for itself.
The first political leader who stepped up to the plate to do anything to support the Bundys was Iron County Commissioner, David Miller, who quickly and clearly identified the injustice and hypocrisy the BLM’s actions as it sought to spend $ 5 Million dollars to remove the Bundy cattle, while claiming that it had inadequate resources to manage its own wild horses that vastly exceed the numbers that are supposed to be on the range, competing for forage, especially under the drought conditions that exist this year. In Iron County, alone, it is estimated that there are well over 2000 wild horses in areas where there are not supposed to be more than about 300. But despite repeated requests, which began long before the Bundy situation was even on the radar screen, the BLM has failed and refused to do anything to address the wild horse issue, claiming lack of resources.
Slowly but surely, and reluctantly at first, other political leaders got on board. In addition to starting to address the wild horse situation in Southwest Utah (including Millard County), the county commissioners in Washington, Iron and Beaver Counties sent a message that they did not want the impounded cattle coming into their counties. The state of Utah also finally got on board and told the BLM that it did not want the impounded cattle to come to Utah, and the BLM would be required to comply with any and all applicable state laws regarding livestock brand inspections, transportation, and transfer of ownership.
In the meantime, the protest movement slowly gained ground. The Internet and Blogosphere started buzzing with the story. Eventually the mainstream media even started to pick it up, on a nationwide basis. More and more people started showing up in Bunkerville to support the Bundys. People started coming from all over the country. While we were in Bunkerville covering the story, we talked to people from all the surrounding states, as well as people who have flown in from Texas to show support. Every day the numbers grew, and more people got on board.
A week ago, as Dave Bundy was standing on or near a public road, taking pictures with his I-pad, he was forcefully arrested, taken into custody and held over night. Later in the week, in a heavy-handed clash with protestors, when Ammon Bundy attempted to see what was in the back of dump truck guarded by a large heavily-armed security detail, he was threatened with police dogs, and Tazored on multiple occasions. Ammon’s aunt was also thrown to the ground by BLM agents. The next day, other protestors where man-handled, roughed-up and issued citations by armed BLM agents as they simply sought to see what the BLM was doing.
Eventually, the governor of Nevada started expressing concerns about a number of things, including closure of public lands, heavy-handed armed altercations with and arrests of protestors, as well as unquestionable infringement of First Amendment rights to free speech and freedom of expression. Slowly, other political leaders started to voice concerns and support.
On Thursday, April 10th, several elected leaders came to speak to the protestors at the rally point near Bunkerville. Based on the comments of Nevada State Representative Crescent Hardy, he was challenged to lead an effort to relocate the protest and peacefully assemble in an area south of Overton where cattle were being transported, and several protestors had been detained, roughed-up and issued citations, to protest the BLM’s actions there.
That same day, for the first time, protesters got the first view of the operation from the air, as a private pilot was hired to fly the range, monitor what the BLM was doing, and count cattle, including in the impound corrals, as well as still remaining on the range. In an effort to help verify and corroborate such information, reporters from the Beaver County Journal in a joint operation with the upstart Pahvant Post, also took to the sky in an effort to verify the truth of many of the BLM’s representations and assertions, including the number of cattle the BLM had claimed were on the range.
Based on the corroborated efforts of both of those surveillance flights, it was quickly concluded that the BLM’s numbers had been grossly exaggerated, and that instead of 1000 cattle, between the cattle counted in the impound corrals and those still out on the range, there were closer to 400-500. It was also verified that many baby calves had been separated from their mothers and orphaned as a result of the gather, and that there were also other casualties of the BLM’s efforts.
After the Beaver County Journal broke this story, the BLM quickly adjusted its numbers and said that instead of the gather taking a month, it looked like after only a week, most of the cattle had already been gathered.
The BLM also quickly sought to intimidate the pilots and media, including reporters for the Beaver County Journal, by claiming that the private surveillance flights had interfered with the BLM’s gathering efforts, and had forced their helicopters to ground. An investigation ensued, in which the BLM sought to interrogate, threaten and intimidate the pilots and reporters, and BCJ was forced to have legal counsel intervene. Although there was no truth whatsoever to such accusations, the BLM then requested the FAA to put a No-Fly-Zone in place to prevent any further private surveillance of the BLM’s operations.
On Friday, April 11th, after much investigation, stories broke that Nevada Senator Harry Reid was alleged to be playing an important role in attempting to move the cattle off the land, in order to pave the way for a Chinese solar farm, and to make additional water available for Las Vegas.
Based on reports that the Bundy Ranch had been fully surrounded by SWAT teams and snipers, starting on Thursday, armed militia members began arriving at the ranch from around the country to provide private security, lend support, and engage in armed conflict with the BLM para-military force, if necessary.
Other prominent figures and organizations, including Richard Mack, and Oath Keepers, promised their support, and made arrangements to mobilize to Bunkerville. Clearly acknowledging full Second Amendment rights, and recognizing the distinction between defensive and offensive weapons, Oath Keepers encouraged their members to dress in Western attire more in keeping with a rural, agricultural atmosphere, and to only carry sidearms (handguns), which are considered to be defensive weapons, rather than rifles, which are generally associated with the ability to take offensive, rather than defensive, measures.
By Friday, the militia presence was clearly felt, with dozens of men in camouflage fatigues, sporting M-16 rifles and combat gear. The security detail also included some very burly private bodyguards for Cliven Bundy, all fully prepared to do battle with federal government agents, if necessary.
The most significant, behind-the-scenes development, however, was the position taken by the Nevada State Brand Inspection office. In previous impoundments almost a decade ago, the Nevada State Department of Agriculture had come under serious fire, when, under pressure from the federal government, its lawyers had counseled state officials to bend their long-established policies and provide brand inspections on the BLM impounded cattle. Those actions resulted in some effort to hold those officials accountable for what they had done.
After the State of Utah had insisted that the impounded cattle not enter the State of Utah to be sold, the BLM began frantically searching for another place and a plan to dispose of the cattle, including going to California, if necessary. Ultimately, however, according to our inside sources, speaking on condition of anonymity because they have not been authorized to speak, the Nevada State Brand Department advised the BLM that it would not provide the BLM with brand inspections, in accordance with applicable state law, transferring ownership of the cattle to the BLM, or authorizing the BLM to transport the cattle anywhere. Consequently, although the BLM was spending close to $ 5 Million dollars to gather the cattle, and was holding them on BLM land, it could not legally move or do anything else with the cattle.
This was a major, unprecedented victory for states’ rights in the ongoing battle with the federal government, as the federal government increasingly seeks to flex its muscles.
By Saturday, April 12th, the protest had grown exponentially, with upwards of 1000 people on the ground, including close to 100 mounted cowboys and riders who had travelled to Bunkerville from at least three states, and saddled-up and come out to show support for the Bundys, and to help take their cattle back. By then, although the protests had always been peaceful, with the mass arrival of militia members, there was also a heavily armed private security force, including snipers in place, and many average participants in the protest were also wearing sidearms for their own protection.
The critical elected official who had been conspicuously absent during the entire week was Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie, who had insisted on taking a neutral stand, and refusing to become involved. Sheriff Gillespie’s only statement had been that no cow was worth shedding any human blood for, on either side. By Saturday morning, however, a rumor was circulating that Sheriff Gillespie was going to make an appearance and talk to both the Bundy Family, and the protestors.
When Sheriff Gillespie and his undersheriffs arrived, however, Cliven Bundy refused to meet with them in private. He said that any discussions they would have would have to occur in broad daylight, under the big flags that had been raised, with all the protestors as witnesses. At that point Sheriff Gillespie announced that based on all the conditions, the BLM had made the decision to shut-down the cattle impoundment operation, re-open the area to the public, and to withdraw from its operation. He did not say what the plan was regarding the impounded cattle or the future use of the disputed range for grazing, but he said he would like to have a private conversation with the Bundy Family about that. Again, Cliven Bundy declined a private meeting, and said that any discussions they would have would be on the stage, before the people.
At that point, Cliven Bundy issued a list of demands to Sheriff Gillespie. Bundy demanded first and foremost that as elected sheriff and head law enforcement officer in Clark County, that Sheriff Gillespie and his Metro Police forces disarm the BLM and the NPS (National Park Service), and bring their weapons back to the protest spot within one (1) hour. He also demanded that Clark County immediately take county equipment and start dismantling the NPS entrances and pay-gates at Red Rock Marina and other entrances to Lake Meade, and that such actions likewise commence within the next hour. At that point, Sheriff Gillespie was left with little choice but to leave the protest to see what could be done to comply with such demands, and he left the area.
Although it is unknown exactly what efforts Sheriff Gillespie undertook, during his entire appearance there had been several LV Metro SWAT team vehicles standing by, several miles away. After Sheriff Gillespie and his men left, upwards of 100 LV Metro patrol units, most of which carried four officers each were dispatched to the BLM compound near Bunkerville, almost 80 miles away. From that point on, a steady stream of LV Metro Police cars could be seen speeding up i-15 toward the BLM compound near Bunkerville. When they reached the area, they joined the SWAT vehicles in approaching the BLM Compound.
Because Cliven Bundy’s demands were not met within 1 hour, as requested, however, the protestors started moving toward the BLM compound in an attempt to take action to take back the impounded cattle. Because of the distance and rough terrain, and very challenging access (all of which were obviously planned by the BLM), it took some time to mobilize everyone, including protestors, security force, and mounted cowboys to an access in large wash, under an I-15 freeway bridge, that had been barricaded and blocked-off by the BLM.
By the time the protestors arrived, the area in the wash under the bridge was heavily guarded by BLM SWAT teams in full combat gear, with multiple snipers in place. Before the protestors approached the barricade, however, Ammon Bundy requested that they all kneel in prayer, and under those tense circumstances asked God for a divine intervention in a peaceful and satisfactory outcome.
As the protesters approached, BLM forces used a loudspeaker to repeatedly threaten them and warn them to stay back. But unarmed protestors continued to advance forward, with armed protestors and militia members staying to the sides and rear, waiting to see if BLM agents would actually open fire on unarmed civilians, and wee prepared to provide return fire, if necessary.
As the protestors advanced closer and closer to the barricade and the situation got tenser and tenser, LV Metro Police personnel ultimately came on the loudspeaker and requested an opportunity to negotiate a resolution. At that point, LV Metro negotiators, acting under the direction of Sheriff Gillespie, advanced to the barricade where they were met by Ammon Bundy, and helped negotiate a satisfactory resolution between the protestors and the BLM, whereby the cattle would be released and returned to the Bundys.
After waiting a short period of time to allow BLM personnel to completely withdraw from the area, the mounted cowboys proceeded to the corrals, where they released the cattle, and brought them back down the wash, to an uproar of cheers from the large crowd of protestors.
After the cattle had passed, Ammon Bundy once again requested that they kneel in prayer to offer thanks for the peaceful, and satisfactory outcome.
Very fortunately, despite the tension, everyone kept their cool, and not shots were fired. Contrary to the image that is often portrayed, the patriots who arrived and were willing to give their lives if necessary, where not determined to get into a fight at all cost, and were thrilled that the encounter ended peacefully.
This may not be the end of the story, but it’s a good place to pause and think about what happened.
Some have called this incident – the Bunkerville Protest – the Boston Tea Party of our modern era. Many are concerned that the Bundy Family and its supporters may have won the battle, but not the war. Whether it is the end, or just the beginning, as the original Boston Tea Party was over 200 years ago, only time will tell.