What are we to make of the fight between Nevada cattle rancher Cliven Bundy and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM)? The essential facts are:

  • In the 1950s, the Bundy family began grazing cattle on federal BLM lands, in accordance with BLM policies and fee structures, according to KLAS-TV. (The Bundy family maintains their ancestors obtained grazing rights in 1887.)
  • In 1989, “The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service list[ed] the desert tortoise as an endangered species. A year later, its designation was changed to ‘threatened,’” reports the Washington Post.
  • In 1993, to “protect” the tortoise (among other things), “the Bureau of Land Management designated hundreds of thousands of acres of federal land for strict conservation efforts”—efforts entailing “the elimination of livestock grazing” in certain areas, the Post reports. The BLM “purchased” “grazing privileges from cattle ranchers who formerly used BLM land,” but Bundy family members refused to “willingly sell their grazing privileges,” the Post reports.
  • According to various reports, the BLM initially sought to severely restrict, but not eliminate, Bundy’s grazing permits. By NBC’s account, the BLM established that Bundy’s “permission to graze his cattle on public lands would depend on tortoise sitings.” By Breitbart.com’s account (which I’m not sure is accurate), the BLM “informed grazing permit holders like Bundy that cattle counts would need to be reduced to 150 head.” A BLM document I obtained states the following: “In 1993, some of the terms of Mr. Bundy’s grazing permit for the Bunkerville allotment [the relevant plot of land] were modified to protect the desert tortoise. Mr. Bundy did not accept the offered grazing permit and subsequently stopped paying grazing fees. The BLM then cancelled Mr. Bundy’s grazing permit but Mr. Bundy continued to graze his cattle in the Bunkerville Allotment. A portion of the Bunkerville Allotment is National Park Service (NPS) lands which BLM managed by agreement with NPS.” The government is demanding that Bundy pay sizable fines for illegally grazing his cattle.
  • Last year, the U.S. District Court of Nevada issued a ruling against Bundy, condemning his “unlawful grazing of his livestock on property owned by the United States and administered by the Department of the Interior . . . through the Bureau of Land Management.” The court authorized the forcible removal of Bundy’s cattle from BLM Land, “at Bundy’s expense.”
  • Earlier this month, federal agents, facing armed resistance by Bundy and his supporters, backed away (perhaps temporarily) from enforcing the court’s order.

The fundamental problem is that the government is unlawfully maintaining possession of the lands in question and failing to recognize legitimate property rights over those lands. As I wrote in 2012: . . .

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