SALT LAKE CITY — Rancher Matt Wood was at his Cedar City auto garage Monday when a friend called and said he should tune into the midday news: Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy was free after 700 days in jail.
Wood doesn’t trust the government or the mainstream media, so he checked with social media-savvy friends.
“It took me a half-dozen phone calls until I started to believe it myself,” Wood said.
Twice, Bundy’s followers have engaged in dramatic showdowns over federal land management policies they believe are unconstitutional.
In April 2014, some aimed rifles at federal law enforcement officers near Bundy’s southeastern Nevada ranch, demanding and obtaining release of Bundy cattle that the feds had rounded up for delinquent grazing fees.
And in early 2016, Bundy’s sons led a 40-day occupation of a wildlife refuge in eastern Oregon where many of the occupiers were armed. The standoff resulted in rancher LaVoy Finicum being shot and killed at a roadblock by state police.
And yet twice now — as the world watched — prosecutors have failed to convict the key players.
In dismissing charges Monday against Bundy, his sons Ammon and Ryan, and militia leader Ryan Payne for their roles in the Nevada standoff, U.S. District Judge Gloria Navarro based her decision on “flagrant misconduct” and “substantial prejudice” by the prosecution.
The ruling had no bearing on Bundy’s claim that his cattle are free to graze the Gold Butte landscape without paying grazing fees. The court ruled in 1998 and 2013 that Bundy must round up his hundreds of cattle and pay more than $1 million in overdue fees required to graze cattle on federally owned land. (The cattle — to the dismay of conservation groups — remain.)
“There was no finding of innocence on the part of Mr. Bundy,” said University of Utah law professor Bob Keiter, who co-authored a 2014 legal analysis that poured cold water on Utah’s desire to sue for control of more than 31 million acres of federally managed public lands.
But to Bundy supporters like Wood, the trial spoke volumes. Defense attorneys were deprived of 1,000 pages of evidence that included locations of government snipers and cameras near the Bundy household, as well as threat assessments that rated the Bundys unlikely to become violent after a roundup.
Wood believes federal law enforcement officers may have forced a confrontation in 2014 because, according to Wood and other Bundy supporters, the Bundys have a historical right to graze cattle on land surrounding the family's Bunkerville, Nevada, ranch, bought by Bundy’s parents in 1948. They wanted Bundy out, he said.
Navarro’s ruling doesn't set a legal precedent or change the way public lands are managed, but it does raise a question.
What does it mean for the future in the long-complicated relationship between ranchers and the feds who have authority over the range?
‘Another Bundy-type thing’
Although they are sometimes painted with a broad brush in popular media, ranchers are like any group of people: They don’t all think alike.
Many ranchers in Utah and Nevada who lease public lands for cattle grazing are frustrated by federal policies and the practices of Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service employees for a long list of reasons that includes everything from growing wild horse and elk populations on their allotments to prescribed burns, predator control and grazing cuts. But none have stood up to the federal government like Bundy.
Wood’s cattle graze on land around Cedar City that his grandfathers began working in the late 1800s. His allotments total about 100,000 acres, he said.
On his summer range, the wild horse population has ballooned from 20 to 500, and Wood says he spends more than $1,000 per month to supply the axtra water required to feed his cows because of the consumption by the horses. When he moves his cows off the range for the winter, he stops maintaining the pumps and pipes, and many of the horses starve to death. The law says Wood can’t drive them off, so “our hands are tied" because he can't do anything about the horses drinking his water.
Unlike Bundy's supporters, Wood didn’t take up arms. Instead, in 2014 he and a group of ranchers sued the federal government to reduce the number of horses. They lost in August, but in October they issued a notice to appeal the decision to the 10th Circuit Court and Wood is “cautiously optimistic” that the Trump administration will see things their way.
In central Utah’s Fishlake National Forest, rancher Stanton Gleave believes that public lands ought to be managed by the county, if they should be managed at all, and he has turned to local officials with his grievances against the U.S. Forest Service.
When Gleave in 2013 objected to a 50 percent grazing cut on a Monroe Mountain allotment, Piute County Commissioner Darin Bushman urged U.S. Forest Service officials to reconsider, and the cut has never been enforced.
In January 2016 — amid the Oregon wildlife refuge occupation — Sheriff Marty Gleave told Richfield District ranger Jason Kling that he would not allow something similar to occur in Piute County, and that if federal officials interfered again on Monroe Mountain without county approval, he would arrest them.
Kling said that situation was blown out of proportion by media. Gleave’s bluster was followed by fruitful discussions, and the Oregon and Nevada standoffs haven’t affected Kling’s decision-making or that of his permittees.
“I don’t know if I can say all,” Kling said, “but certainly the majority of the permittees out there that I associate with want to do what’s right. They want to comply with terms and conditions of their grazing permits.”
Stanton Gleave, however, wonders if the cuts were never enforced because “maybe they’re starting to wise up that they don’t own that (land). We do.”
“All you’ve got to do is go tell the sheriff they’re harassing you and to take care of them,” he said.
Such conclusions are the fear of Bundy critics like the Center for Western Priorities, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Anti-Defamation League, who all released statements this week saying that Monday’s ruling might “embolden” likeminded ranchers.
But many ranchers do not align with Bundy’s ideology, nor did they hang on every report from the Las Vegas courtroom.
Asked for comment about the ruling late Monday afternoon, the manager of the vast Pahvant Ensign Ranch, Neuel Chlarson, asked, “How’d that turn out?”
Chlarson, who oversees an operation that owns grazing permits for more than 400,000 acres in Millard, Beaver, Sevier and Piute counties, has friends who went to Oregon for the 2016 occupation, but “I don’t follow their story,” he said, “because I don’t agree with it, really.”
He sees merits on both sides of the argument but shares the worries of those conservationists: A few bad eggs might be emboldened by Monday’s ruling to defy orders relating to their allotments, and “tell the (federal) range guy, basically, don’t fight them on it, or there’s going to be another Cliven Bundy-type thing.”
Chlarson was quoted in a 2007 Deseret News story imploring federal officials to “be sensible” about regulations after the Milford Flat Fire burned through ranchers’ winter ranges. Asked Monday for an update, Chlarson said they “did everything they could to help us.”
Cattle, which prefer grass, were allowed to temporarily share some allotments with sheep, which prefer brush. Federal officials also surveyed local ranchers to see if any had excess feed they could spare for those affected by the fire.
“They’re workable,” Chlarson said. “They’re not ....like they get made out to be.”
‘Spit and whittle’
In September 2004, during Steve Ellis’ second week on the job as forest supervisor in Baker County, Oregon, he spent the night in the small town of Enterprise and went to nearby Joseph at 6 a.m. in search of the cafe that had the most pickup trucks parked out front.
When he found it, he went inside and introduced himself to the diners.
It’s what Ellis, who retired in December 2016 as the Bureau of Land Management’s deputy director after 38 years with the BLM and the Forest Service, describes as the “spit and whittle” of the job.
In the rural communities where Ellis worked, he would join the PTA and Rotary clubs and coach youth sports. He forged relationships with the county sheriff and commissioners.
Ellis was troubled by the rulings in Nevada and Oregon, even though he could understand the decisions after following proceedings in the media.
“We had two instances,” he said. “We had a group that didn’t like a decision of the Department of the Interior, and so they got an armed gang together, and they got away with it.”
As deputy director, Ellis heard from BLM employees working in Harney County during the 2016 Oregon occupation that they and their families faced threats and harassment. Months earlier, members of a militia that came to Bundy’s aid in 2014 had surrounded an agency office in Medford, Oregon. Ellis ordered the office closed.
After the Bunkerville standoff, the agency began to install security cameras, urge caution and distribute GPS tracking devices to employees.
But the best protection, he said, is the "spit and whittle": Federal officials should “double down” on building the local relationships that prevent them from losing control in the first place.
The BLM in Utah has tried to be more responsive to community and rural concerns, said spokesman Michael Richardson.
New Director Ed Roberson “has traveled throughout the state to build trust with the public while building partnerships that will benefit the American people for years to come,” Richardson said.
Department of the Interior press secretary Heather Swift blamed former President Barack Obama in a Tuesday statement for a feeling among rural Americans that “the department was no longer a good neighbor,” adding that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke hails from Montana, “where disputes are settled at the fence line over strong coffee and a firm handshake.”
Todd Macfarlane, an attorney and land-rights activist from Kanosh in Millard County, said some ranchers seem to have struck “a more hopeful tone” that their concerns will be heard by the new administration. In Nashville, Tennessee, on Monday, as Bundy's case was dismissed in Nevada, Donald Trump became the first president since George H. W. Bush to address the American Farm Bureau Federation.
Freed after 700 days behind bars, Bundy said that if the BLM made another attempt to seize his cattle, they could expect “the very same thing as last time.”
On Wednesday, multiple conservation groups signed a letter to Zinke urging him to take Bundy up on his challenge.
Around Utah, where nearly two-thirds of the state is federally owned, the talk is somewhat more subdued.
State Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, said he doesn’t believe Monday’s ruling will incite lawlessness. But Noel, a rancher who has sought to rein in federal land agencies through legislation, said people in the rural West are weary of agencies like the BLM “strong-arming” residents with little recourse. The Bundys might have paid their grazing fees if they hadn’t been inflated beyond reason, he said.
“There needs to be oversight and we’re just not getting it,” said Noel, who worked for the BLM until President Bill Clinton’s designation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. “The feds just want to nail people and make their life miserable.”
San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman, who was sentenced to 10 days in jail for an illegal May 2010 ATV protest ride through Recapture Canyon to protest its closure to off-road vehicle use, said judges should make an example of reckless prosecutions.
According to a report from The Oregonian, the BLM’s lead investigator in the standoff wrote a memo accusing federal law enforcement at Bunkerville of a “widespread pattern of bad judgment, lack of discipline, incredible bias, unprofessionalism and misconduct.” Among other allegations detailed in the memo, officers had “bragged” that Dave Bundy, arrested in March 2016 in Utah’s Millard County for his role in the standoff, had pieces of gravel stuck to his face after they forced him to the ground in Nevada.
The allegations reinforced common fears in the rural West that the federal government — perhaps buoyed by big-dollar interests in Washington and other faraway places — wants to get rid of those living off the land.
“The feds should be held accountable, but nothing ever happens,” Lyman said, specifically pointing to alleged inappropriate behavior by former BLM special-agent-in-charge Dan Love, who commanded agents during the 2014 standoff.
Love no longer works for the BLM after investigators alleged a series of abuses. Among them: Love handed out valuable stones seized by the BLM — so-called Moqui marbles, with sandstone naturally encased in iron oxide — to employees, and ordered them to set aside three or four of the “best” for himself. He asked an employee to delete emails sought by then-U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah. And he used his role as security of Nevada’s Burning Man festival to buy otherwise sold-out tickets and have agents drive his family around.
Federal officials appear to have avoided another nearby flashpoint, at least.36 comments on this story
In November, BLM officials reached a settlement with the widow of LaVoy Finicum — whose 2016 funeral was held in Kanab — that allowed her to put her family’s small herd back on their Arizona Strip allotment.
Jeanette Finicum had been ordered off the allotment after her husband’s death and $12,000 in unpaid fees for willful trespass, engendering much sympathy within the cause.
She said Wednesday that she was “pleasantly surprised” that the BLM actually called her, unprompted, and credits the development to the change in administration.
Contributing: The Associated Press