by Phil Taylor
June 4, 2014
Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy owes more money to the federal government than what all other ranchers owe collectively in late grazing fees, according to new data obtained from the Bureau of Land Management.
Of the roughly 16,000 ranchers who graze cattle on BLM lands, 458 have late grazing bills totaling $237,000, according to agency data.
Compare that to the more than $1 million Bundy owes Uncle Sam for refusing to pay grazing fees on his Bunkerville, Nev., allotment beginning in 1993 and for trespassing fees he has been accruing since 1998.
It suggests Bundy, whose high-profile standoff with BLM over the roundup of his cattle in early April rekindled a national debate over the federal government's ownership of public lands, is an outlier among his rancher colleagues.
Of those 16,000 public lands ranchers, less than 1 percent have grazing bills that are more than two months past due, BLM said.
Ranchers graze cattle, sheep and other livestock on the more than 21,000 allotments on 155 million acres of BLM lands. They pay $1.35 per month for each cow and calf on both BLM and Forest Service lands, a fee far below what is charged to graze on private or state lands. BLM did not indicate how many ranchers may owe trespass fees, which would be separate from the grazing fees.
"We have good relationships with our permittees," said BLM spokesman Craig Leff. "By far, the vast majority pay their bills on time."
Bundy, a states' rights advocate, has said he does not recognize BLM's jurisdiction over the Gold Butte area where several hundreds of his cattle roam about 80 miles northeast of Las Vegas -- a view that is at odds with federal court rulings and the Nevada Constitution.
In March 1994, Bundy tried to send a check for $1,961 to Clark County for grazing fees, but the county returned it because it lacked jurisdiction over the land, according to a 1998 order from the U.S. District Court for the District of Nevada.
BLM was not able to say what portion of Bundy's $1 million bill consists of back grazing fees, but it's likely that much of the fees comes from trespassing.
The court's 1998 order required Bundy to pay trespass fees of $200 per cow, per month on the former 154,000-acre Bunkerville allotment beginning that November. The court later modified those fees to $46 for every day Bundy's livestock remained on the allotment in addition to $1,377 in past trespass fees and the $4,123 BLM paid to perform an aerial survey of his livestock.
BLM's most recent survey in April estimated that there were 908 illegal cattle spread across 1,200 square miles of the Gold Butte area, and that some had also wandered onto the adjacent Lake Mead National Recreation Area. It's impossible to know how many of those cows bear Bundy's brand, how many were on the former allotment and for how many months they were there.
Bundy's past statements show no indication that he would pay anyway.
Todd Tucci, an attorney for the Boise-based law firm Advocates for the West, which represents environmental groups fighting to end grazing on public lands, said he's not surprised that most ranchers pay grazing fees on time, considering how low the fee is.
Environmental groups have long complained that the fee provides a perverse incentive to graze on marginally productive but sensitive federal lands and fails to recoup BLM's investment in the grazing program. BLM collected $12.2 million in grazing fees in fiscal 2013 but spent more than $48 million administering livestock permits, according to BLM figures cited by The Fiscal Times.
"When you're getting something for nothing, why not pay nothing?" Tucci said.
The National Cattlemen's Beef Association has warned that raising the grazing fee -- which the Obama administration has proposed doing by 75 percent -- would put many ranchers out of business and force some to sell or subdivide their lands, which would reduce habitat for wildlife.
While neither NCBA nor the Nevada Cattlemen's Association condoned Bundy's decision to operate outside of federal law, they noted that the designation of critical habitat for the desert tortoise within Bundy's grazing allotment led BLM to require a steep reduction in his grazing levels.
That pressure is felt by ranchers across the West, said Dustin Van Liew, NCBA's director of federal lands.
"Nearly all public land permittees (97 percent) pay their market-based grazing fees, and on time, despite the fact that they continue to face greater regulatory pressure and ever increasing costs of operating from the federal government in the form of endless regulation stemming from the endangered species act, monument designations, and backlogged permit renewals," he said in an email this morning.
It is unclear what the United States will do next to force Bundy to comply with two federal court orders in 2013 to remove his cattle from the Gold Butte area.
According to an April 2013 court filing from the Department of Justice, Interior offered, through the Clark County sheriff, to gather and ship Bundy's cattle to a facility of his choice for sale and for him to receive all of the proceeds.
Bundy instead threatened legal action against the contractor that would have transported the cattle, making reference to a "range war," according to DOJ.