Mojave Ranchers Wiped Out for Tortoise

The story of the Clark County, Nevada cattle-ranchers and their eviction by the federal government in order to protect the Mojave desert tortoise is a classic tale of the federal government’s insidious efforts to target those out of favor with its leftist agenda.

The tale began with the 1989 decision by the federal government to declare the Mojave desert tortoise an endangered species. At the time, there were 50 cattle-ranching families   in Nevada's Clark County. The federal government asserted that livestock grazing destroyed desert tortoise populations, largely because cattle ate the grasses and spring growth of cacti, which the tortoises also ate. Yet in 1994, the federal government admitted in its Desert Tortoise Recovery Plan that the “extremely controversial” question of whether that assertion was true was not settled.

It didn’t matter.

Melvin Hughes, who once ranched on the Bunkerville allotment, said, “When they got the turtles listed as endangered ... they pushed to get the cattle off. They said the cattle was eating the feed from the turtles. Hogwash!”

At the time the tortoise was declared endangered, Las Vegas was exploding, but the city was restricted from developing into the area of the tortoise because of the Endangered Species Act. The county obtained a permit that would allow development that might kill tortoises if they donated money for conservation efforts; the county made a deal with the federal government and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to pay ranchers to leave the area.  

James Skillen, author of “The Nation’s Largest Landlord,” which covers the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM), said:

Clark County made a choice: urban development is far more important to us than ranchers on the periphery of the county. The BLM is part of that larger tension between a kind of urban and environmentally conscious West and a traditional resource West. Those conflicts are just going to keep going and the Endangered Species Act is going to continue to be a mechanism of that conflict.

By 2002, the U.S. Geological Survey admitted that the evidence that cattle harmed the desert tortoise was “not overwhelming,” William Boarman, the biologist who authored the report, said he knew of no studies showing there was any connection. But the Fish and Wildlife Service said that until it was proven there wasn’t any harm, grazing should be banned.

This triggered the BLM to issue an emergency rule requiring the ranchers to transfer their cattle off of their ranges, which catalyzed the ranchers to hire a lawyer and request a hearing before an administrative law judge. Their lawyer, Karen Budd-Falen, remembered, “Our argument was that livestock grazing on these allotments in these circumstances is not harming the desert tortoise. The court ruled from the bench: the cows can stay, the BLM is wrong.”

The BLM was determined to drive the ranchers out, though, and roughly one year later, it issued another clearance order. The ranchers went to court, and won again. The BLM ignored the court and started tightening grazing rules and working with Clark County officials to tell the ranchers to leave.

Bob Abbey, who ran the BLM for Nevada at the time, said the BLM worked with Clark County to buy out the ranchers, as it was the “fairest way of resolving” the issue.

But when interviewed by Reuters, some ranchers said they simply couldn’t afford to keep fighting the federal government in court.  Calvin Adams said, 'We had no say in what we were going to get … I couldn't afford to pay the lawyers when they just keep taking you to court.”

Rancher Cliven Bundy fought with the other ranchers in court at the beginning, but then decided to simply ignore the feds claiming they had authority over him; he stopped paying grazing fees in 1993. In 1998, when the feds banned grazing in the area, he ignored a court order to move. After the feds and the Clark County officials had driven the ranchers out, more than 1 million acres of land was devoid of cattle, except for one stubborn rancher:  Bundy.

Since that time, Clark County has spent millions of dollars from developers for conservation efforts, including relocating thousands of tortoises, but hundreds of tortoises have been killed in the process. One 2001 county report estimated that more than 400 tortoises were killed each year.

It probably is no coincidence that public land in Clark County's Dry Lake Valley has been zoned for solar energy development, as long as they can find a place for the desert tortoises that would be uprooted. It is also not likely a coincidence that the BLM says it knows the perfect place to relocate the tortoises: Cliven Bundy’s land.


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