Lawsuit Seeks Eviction of Cliven Bundy’s Trespassing Cattle

by Erik Molvar, Executive Director, Western Watersheds Project

In the Mojave Desert northeast of Las Vegas, Gold Butte National Monument encompasses spectacular geologic features, ancient Indigenous sites, and fragile desert tortoise habitats. Here, infamous rancher Cliven Bundy has illegally grazed his livestock for the past three decades, damaging native ecosystems and thumbing his nose at the Bureau of Land Management and federal courts alike.

A recent lawsuit by Western Watersheds Project seeks to resolve this ecologically untenable situation, and rid the public lands of Cliven Bundy’s cattle once and for all. The lawsuit  was filed in the U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia, naming Clark County, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack as defendants.

Illegal grazing

Gambel's quail in the eastern lowlands of Gold Butte National Monument.  Photo by Erik Molvar

The lawsuit targets lack of federal compliance with a Multi-Species Habitat Conservation Plan (or “Conservation Plan”). In exchange for the removal of livestock grazing across most of the federal lands in Clark County, the Plan permits the City of Las Vegas  to develop 145,000 acres of habitat otherwise protected for ESA-protected Mojave desert tortoises and southwest willow flycatchers and would be immune from “take” provisions. Seventy-seven other species, not listed under the ESA but rare and declining, are also given consideration under the Conservation Plan. It was a fair exchange: Rather than offsetting habitat losses from development with conservation easements (which keep impacts the same), removal of livestock alleviates pressure on the native vegetation, increasing habitat function and enabling the land to support more of the imperiled species in question.

But the not all of the lands slated for recovery from livestock ended up getting the ecological reprieve that the Conservation Plan specified: 175,000 acres of Gold Butte National Monument still suffer from Cliven Bundy’s trespassing cattle. And on thousands of acres of the lands where the livestock were removed, the Bureau of Land Management subsequently authorized industrial-scale solar projects, permanently destroying the ecological benefits of pulling the cows off. Both of these situations leave the Bureau of Land Management out of compliance with the terms of the Conservation Plan, key factors in our latest litigation.

Bundy cows in Gold Butte

Photo by Erik Molvar

c. Pic 1 - Bundy Cows, 2023 copy

The saga of the Bundy’s trespassing cows starts with the federal efforts to protect Mojave desert tortoise. In 1991, it became clear that in order to prevent the species’ extinction, the livestock were going to have to stop grazing tortoise habitats in the Las Vegas Field Area, and the Bureau began working with permittees to remove and reduce livestock use. Bundy refused to comply and claimed “vested rights” to the Bunkerville allotment, and so began the long legal efforts to evict his cattle.

In 1998, the Bunkerville allotment was formally closed in a land-use plan revision, and Clark County purchased the permit in order to permanently retire it and use it as mitigation. Despite court orders in 1998 and 1999 that found his claims invalid and ordered his livestock off the public lands, Bundy refused to remove his livestock.

In the meantime, Bundy’s cattle continued to graze, and sometimes starve, on the federal lands of the Mojave Desert. The cattle spread the seeds of an invasive annual grass called red brome – a close relative of cheatgrass – and by damaging the native vegetation, created the disturbed habitat and soils ideal this invasion. The Mojave Desert doesn’t have enough vegetation to sustain a fire under natural conditions, but red brome provides a carpet of fine fuels to carry flames between the isolated native shrubs. In 2005, a fire raged through the lands grazed by the Bundy livestock, killing the Joshua trees and creosote bushes and laying the groundwork for a takeover by red brome. In addition to the direct loss of tortoises that occurs when heavy-footed cattle crash through desert tortoise burrows (killing their residents as they retreat from hot temperatures), the destruction of supporting native habitat has been harmful as well.

Little Finland,

Gold Butte NM.

Photo by: Jasmine Molvar

c. Pic 3 - Joshua trees

In 2013, a federal judge once again ordered the Bundy’s cattle removed, and in February of the following year the Bureau of Land Management organized a roundup of his cattle. In response, Bundy called in the militias, and two alt-right militant groups, Three Percenters and Oath Keepers, flocked to his Bunkerville ranch armed with assault rifles. In the tense standoff that followed, federal law enforcement, outgunned by the militia groups, ultimately capitulated and released the Bundy cattle. It was a victory for the insurrectionists, and it paved the way for subsequent armed uprisings elsewhere in the West, and ultimately for the Capitol insurrection in Washington, DC.

In a related incident two years later, Dwight and Steven Hammond were sent back to finish their mandatory federal prison terms for having committed arson on grazing allotments in eastern Oregon. The Hammonds had a dark history of threatening Malheur National Wildlife Refuge managers over restrictions on cattle grazing on Refuge wetlands, and of generally menacing public land managers. They had been indicted for arson and convicted of illegally setting multiple fires on federal land to cover up poaching incidents and to increase the amount of grass available for their cattle. They had served less than the mandatory minimum sentences in federal prison, and in January of 2016 they were ordered back to prison. But their pending re-incarceration inspired Ammon and Ryan Bundy, Cliven’s sons, who framed this as an attack on ranchers’ rights rather than the fulfillment of the law. The sons traveled north to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and staged a takeover of the Refuge headquarters, aided and abetted by other armed insurrectionists. It was Bunkerville all over again, a two-month intentional media circus that led to desecration of Indigenous artifacts, vandalism of federal property, multiple arrests, and the death of one of the insurrectionists.

Unfortunately, the legal cases against the Bundys in both Bunkerville and Malheur were botched by federal prosecutors, and even as many of their co-conspirators were imprisoned and are now serving long federal sentences for the crimes committed during those sieges, the Bundys themselves were set free. The fact that these ringleaders escaped legal accountability provided a template for the January 6th insurrection in the federal Capitol building, when alt-right militants broke into the rotunda and attempted a sort of mob-rule coup. The government has had more success prosecuting these insurrectionists in the D.C. courts.

Meanwhile, back in Gold Butte, Cliven’s trespassing cattle continued to trample desert tortoise habitat, and he continued to try out his dubious legal theories in court. In 2019, Cliven lost his state court bid to assert State of Nevada ownership of public lands, based on a contorted reading of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended the Mexican-American War in 1848. This argument ignored the obvious – that the state constitution had formally disclaimed any interest in federally-held lands within Nevada borders when it was admitted to the union. The state court ruled that Bundy had raised – and lost – these claims during three previous rounds of federal litigation, so the state court could not reopen the matter. None of this has persuaded Cliven that the federal government owns the lands his livestock freely graze, and he continues to assert that he has a right to use these lands.

That’s a major reason why Western Watersheds Project brought the lawsuit targeting the federal government to enforce the Conservation Plan with the intention of righting this wrong.

In addition to forcing the government’s hand on dealing with illegal grazing on mitigation lands, the lawsuit points out the absurdity of converting desert tortoise habitat (protected by the Conservation Plan and enhanced by livestock removal) into solar farms. The value-added of cow-free desert lands is quickly undone by industrial-scale energy development, a loss that needs accounting.

While climate change provides a compelling impetus for ramping up the nation’s solar power production, it is far from clear that public lands are the best place to do it. The Inflation Reduction Act now links public-lands solar permitting with leasing of public lands for oil and gas development during the prior year. That’s a lose-lose situation: more fossil fuels leasing in exchange for converting public lands for industrial renewable uses. The administration should instead pursue a win-win approach: No new fossil fuel leasing, and instead incentivizing solar panel siting on rooftops and parking canopies in urban area close to where the electricity will be used.

In the final analysis, the desert tortoise has been getting the short end of the stick, and it’s time for that to change. Cliven Bundy should no longer be allowed to flout with impunity court orders to remove his livestock. And tortoise habitats prioritized for conservation should no longer be converted to industrial energy production. Clark County and the City of Las Vegas kept up their end of the bargain. It’s time for the federal government to hold up its end of the deal.

Erik Molvar is a wildlife biologist and Executive Director of Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit conservation group working to protect and restore wildlife and watersheds through the American West. His published scientific research includes articles on the population dynamics, ecological effects, and evolution of social behavior in Alaskan moose, as well as the vulnerability and irreplaceability of large tracts of wildlands in the Wyoming Basins ecoregion.