NEVADA – The federal agency that backed down over the weekend in a tense standoff with a Nevada rancher is being accused of leaving a trail of wreckage behind.
Fox News toured the damage — allegedly caused by the Bureau of Land Management — which included holes in water tanks and destroyed water lines and fences. According to family friends, the bureau’s hired “cowboys” also killed two prize bulls.
“They had total control of this land for one week, and look at the destruction they did in one week,” said Corey Houston, friend of rancher Cliven Bundy and his family. “So why would you trust somebody like that? And how does that show that they’re a better steward?”
The BLM and other law enforcement officials backed down on Saturday in their effort to seize Bundy’s cattle, after hundreds of protesters, some armed, arrived to show support for the Bundy family. In the end, BLM officials left the scene amid concerns about safety, and no shots were fired.
The dispute between the feds and the Bundy family has been going on for years; they say he owes more than $1.1 million in unpaid grazing fees — and long ago revoked his grazing rights over concern for a federally protected tortoise. They sent officials to round up his livestock following a pair of federal court orders last year giving the U.S. government the authority to impound the cattle.
The feds, though, are being accused of taking the court orders way too far.
On a Friday night conference call, BLM officials told reporters that “illegal structures” on Bundy’s ranch — water tanks, water lines and corrals — had to be removed to “restore” the land to its natural state and prevent the rancher from restarting his illegal cattle operation.
However, the court order used to justify the operation appears only to give the agency the authority to “seize and impound” Bundy’s cattle.
“Nowhere in the court order that I saw does it say that they can destroy infrastructure, destroy corrals, tanks … desert environment, shoot cattle,” Houston said.
Bundy’s friends say the BLM wranglers told them the bulls were shot because they were dangerous and could gore their horses. One bull was shot five times.
But Houston said the pen holding the bull wasn’t even bent. “It’s not like the bull was smashing this pen and trying tackle people or anything,” he said. “The pen is sitting here. It hasn’t moved. No damage whatsoever. Where was the danger with that bull?”
Plus he said BLM vehicles appear to have crushed a tortoise burrow near the damaged water tank. “How’s that conservation?” he asked.
The BLM has not yet responded to a request for comment on these allegations.
Bundy has refused to pay the grazing fees or remove his cattle, and doesn’t even acknowledge the federal government’s authority to assess or collect damages.
The bureau has said if Bundy wasn’t willing to pay, then they would sell his cattle.
However, there was a problem with that plan — few in Nevada would touch Bundy’s cattle for fear of being blacklisted.
“The sale yards are very nervous about taking what in the past has been basically stolen cattle from the federal government,” Nevada Agriculture Commissioner Ramona Morrison said.
Documents show the BLM paid a Utah cattle wrangler $966,000 to collect Bundy’s cattle and a Utah auctioneer to sell them. However, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert refused to let Bundy cattle cross state lines, saying in a letter: “As Governor of Utah, I urgently request that a herd of cattle seized by the Bureau of Land Management from Mr. Cliven Bundy of Bunkerville, Nevada, not be sent to Utah. There are serious concerns about human safety and animal health and well-being, if these animals are shipped to and sold in Utah.”
That letter was sent three days before the BLM round-up, which is why the cattle were still being held Saturday in temporary pens just a few miles from Bundy’s ranch. Morrison says BLM was sitting on cattle because it had no way to get rid of them — setting up a potential tragedy as orphaned calves were not getting any milk and feed costs were about to skyrocket.
The showdown is far from over. The BLM says it will “continue to work to resolve the matter administratively and judicially,” though Bundy still doesn’t recognize federal authority over the federal lands that he continues to use in violation of a court order. The federal judge who issued that decision says Bundy’s claims “are without merit.”
That order from October 2013 says Bundy owes $200 per day per head for every day he fails to move his cattle. That amounts to roughly $640 million in damages owed to the federal government for illegally grazing his cattle.