Ranchers v. Washington: The standoff did not start, nor will it end, with Cliven Bundy

Rancher - University of Nevada, Reno media office
Rancher - University of Nevada, Reno media office

WASHINGTON, May 4, 2014 — While Cliven Bundy and his stand off with the Bureau of Land Management landed on the front page of several daily news sites, he is not the first rancher to stand up to the government. Moreover, the fight between the federal government and ranchers has been going on for more than 150 years.

After the Civil War, the United States Government implemented the Homestead Act, which gave 160 acres of public land to any American who settled it.

Ranchers took advantage of the Act to set up ranches to feed America’s beef industry.  Because it takes vast acreage to feed cattle, ranchers needed to increase their grazing lands as they increased their herds.  Ultimately, ranchers leased federal land from the government, and paid grazing fees for that right.

One reason ranchers were forced to turn to the federal government for that land is because it owns enormous amounts of the Western states. In Nevada, the federal government owns more than 80 percent of the land within the state boundaries.

The arrangement created tensions, however, because ranchers depended on an outside party for their livelihood. Ranchers worried that Washington could revoke that right, and that fear increased with the Endangered Species Act, which restricted use of federal land to protect habitat.

In 1976, after Congress officially ceded ownership of public lands to the BLM and other federal land managers, some individuals launched the “Sagebrush Rebellion.” The group wanted to give individual states, rather than the federal government, control over public lands.

The movement lost momentum after a few years, but was reborn in 1994 when Nye County Commissioner Richard Carver used a bulldozer to open a Forest Service road that had been closed by authorities.

Many ranchers continue to back the idea of having individual states own the land. Nevada rancher Tim Dufferina told NPR, “The state is more in touch with what’s going on in each individual state than the federal government.”

In Utah, the legislature passed a law demanding that the federal government turn its land over to state authorities. Nevada ranchers hope their state will follow suit.

State ownership of land carries risks as well, however. State budgets are not nearly as expansive as the ever-growing federal budget, and managing the public land is expensive. Just fighting fires and managing mineral rights, not to mention running national parks, costs millions of dollars.

If those costs go up, states might be forced to sell of parcels. Private ownership of land risks development, raising population density and eliminating grazing land all together.

But some ranchers say the current situation simply does not work.

Before Bundy made headlines, Raymond Yowell lost his cattle herd to the Bureau of Land Management.

Yowell, an 84-year-old rancher who formerly was a Shoshone chief, allowed his 132 head of cattle to graze on the South Fork Western Shoshone Indian Reservation for decades. In 2002, however, the BLM seized his cattle and sold them at auction to pay what the BLM said he owed in grazing fees. The BLM also sent Yowell a bill for $180,000 in remaining fees, and is now garnishing his Social Security checks to pay that balance.

Yowell had argued he was not subject to grazing fees because his cattle grazed on a reservation. The Shoshone say the original treaties that created the reservations granted them the right to graze cattle on the land. However, a 1979 Supreme Court decision ruled that land designated for Indian reservations is subject to BLM regulation.

Yowell is now appealing to have the Supreme Court hear his case, which alleges that his cattle was taken without due process.

The BLM does not comment on pending cases.

There are numerous other cases of ranchers fighting the government, and of the ranchers ultimately losing.

But there are also numerous appeals currently waiting at all levels of the judiciary.

Nothing, yet, is settled, and all rancher eyes remain focused on Cliven Bundy to see where his fight leads.


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Lisa M. Ruth
Lisa M. Ruth is Editor-in-Chief of CDN. In addition to her editing and leadership duties, she also writes on international events, intelligence, and other topics. She has worked with CDN as a journalist since 2009. Lisa is also President of CTC International Group, Inc., a research and analysis firm in South Florida, providing actionable intelligence to decisionmakers. She started her career at the CIA, where she won several distinguished awards for her service. She holds an MA in international relations from the University of Virginia, and a BA in international relations from George Mason University. She also serves as Chairman of the Board of Horses Healing Hearts, and is involved with several other charitable organizations, including Habitat for Humanity, The Boys and Girls Clubs of America, and AYSO.
  • Sam Hill

    Why not give bundy a pass the white house gives thousands of millions away every day, in exchange for him restricting his cattle to lands he holds title to. Problem solved nobody shot nobody in jail nobody goes hungry.

  • Sandra Goetz

    the BLM does not comment on ongoing cases. How convenient. Makes it much easier for them to keep these battles quiet and just continue to bully the ranchers.

  • tom2

    Very well written. The best summary I’ve seen and I’ve followed the BLM closely for several months. I’d add a few points. Initial federal policy was to transfer ownership of federal lands to private and state ownership. The Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 ended the disposal policy and declared a new national policy of keeping these lands. The squabbles began and obviously are ongoing. The 1979 Nevada law directly conflicted with the 1976 federal law. The federal lawsuit against Nye County’s 1993 gesture issued a declaratory judgment that it owned and had authority to manage the disputed lands. Because that judgement was like allowing a litigant to declare itself the winner, in lieu of an independent outside party, the squabbles continue. Fact is, the federal government by definition cannot be impartial regarding land it claims to own. However, what’s not said is paramount. It did not invalidate Article IV, § 3, Clause 2, the Property Clause, that gives Congress authority over federal property. And it did not vacate the Supreme Court opinion that Congress has the power to legislate under this Clause “without limitation.” That said, the Congress has the power to repeal the 1976 act or rearrange BLM funding by gradually moving it along with the land to the states. However, at the end, legislation on federal land disposal continues to be considered but land disposal bills have not been introduced in more than ten years. I’d guess it’s too controversial.

  • lawdawg541

    All They have to do is claim to be illegals, then they will get free grazing land…..and an Obamaphone.

  • WenPap

    Yet the press is hell bent on making Bundy look like a racist, lying, stealing, stupid old white man. Who in Oprahs eyes should just go on and get his dying over with…..The old bait and switch

  • Claudia

    It is the time we are living in. We are all going through so many changes. Global warming is causing us, importantly, to consider our actions. Let’s talk turkey. Beef cattle are a serious problem to global warming and to our public lands. Our public lands, and the legal wildlife on them, must be preserved for future generations.

    • Lambadafan Ed

      How did man cause global warming on Mars at the same time as on Earth?

    • counterofbeans

      Humans burp and fart too and not just cows. Should we also thin the human population? Agenda 21 calls for the world’s population to be reduced to 1 billion. Forty years ago the scientists were predicting global cooling. There are lots of scientists (some have won the Nobel Prize) who disagree there is global warming. The sun is the main factor in the slight increase in temperatures. I can tell you it was a lot hotter in So. Ca. back in the 1960s then it is today. At the start of each school year we had temperatures exceeding 105 degrees for about a week and temperatures between 95-100 were not uncommon in July and August. Use your brain and not Al Gore’s (who is making a mint off people like you).

      • Claudia

        Conspiracy theorist. Get out of the chat rooms and Right Wing websites and read the real news, real studies, for yourself and stop spreading BS. Americans deserves better than that garbage.

    • Michelle Houghtaling

      Global warming doesn’t HAVE problems. And it ended the last Ice Age, enabling us and thousands of other species to thrive. Doesn’t sound like a problem to me.

  • counterofbeans

    There was another family of ranchers in Nevada who were given the Bundy treatment. The mother died in 1995 or so from the stress and the father died in 2006. In 2007 the son won a legal battle with the US government and the judge was so outraged at the actions of BLM that he awarded the family a settlement in excess of $14 million. The US government has yet to pay the rancher even a single dime. Time to put a levy on the US Treasury or a lien on federal land like the BLM office in D.C.?

  • Dan H

    Does the Federal Government have nothing better to do than harass ranchers who break their backs to feed the country? When did the Federal Government become anti-United States? Sickening. Harry Reid and his little youngster friend running the BLM are not Americans in my book. I think they are probably sissies who are envious of real men like the ranchers they harass.