Sunday, February 28, 2016

BLM's conundrum: What to do with Bundy's cows (a cow conundrum??)

Phil Taylor, E&E reporter

 Cliven Bundy is behind bars, but his cows remain at large.

The longtime nemesis of the Bureau of Land Management faces charges that could keep him imprisoned for the rest of his life. His cattle linger as an ecological scourge to the Mojave Desert northeast of Las Vegas.

The Bundy herd, last estimated at 1,000, has trampled sensitive soils, devoured native saplings and bedded down against Native American artifacts. One of Bundy's bulls attacked a Nevada wildlife official, while others have run roughshod over a community garden and a golf course, BLM said.

BLM and its allies -- following court orders -- want Bundy's cows gone from the public lands surrounding his Bunkerville, Nev., ranch, and particularly Gold Butte, a 350,000-acre mesa of Joshua trees, cacti and creosote bushes below the snow-dusted Virgin Peak.

But removing Bundy's ornery, battle-tested herd -- estimated by one Nevada official to be worth up to $800,000 -- will be expensive, logistically difficult and potentially dangerous.

"It's like hunting cape buffalo," said Ken Mayer, the former director of Nevada's Department of Wildlife. "They're nasty, they're smart, and they won't hesitate to charge."

Bundy's militant followers may be the bigger hurdle.

...The next roundup is "not going to be easy," said Rob Mrowka, a biologist at the Center for Biological Diversity who has lobbied for decades for BLM to remove Bundy's cows. "I think the price is going to be a lot more when you add the risk."

It's unclear what kind of resistance Bundy or his sons Ammon or Ryan could muster behind bars without access to the ranch or social media, which was a key catalyst in the 2014 standoff. Two others whom the government accuses of helping rally militants to Bunkerville -- Ryan Payne and Pete Santilli -- are also in custody.

After a roundup, unbranded cattle -- estimated to be three-quarters of Bundy's herd -- would become the property of Nevada. BLM normally allows the responsible rancher the opportunity to reclaim his or her cattle -- if they agree to pay any past-due grazing, trespass and administrative fees (in Bundy's case, more than $1 million). If the rancher refuses, BLM could then get permission from the state brand inspector to sell the cattle.

At Bundy's melon farm along the banks of the Virgin River about 90 miles northeast of Las Vegas, ranching operations are continuing as usual, said a man named "Skipper" who identifies himself as the family's head of security. Skipper said he was briefly detained and questioned by the FBI at the time of Cliven Bundy's arrest Feb. 10 but that he's back at the ranch.

From jail, Cliven calls the ranch each day with a list of ranching tasks, Skipper said. Family members including Arden Bundy, 17, Cliven's youngest son, are setting traps to brand newly born cows. A son-in-law comes every other weekend to help.

There's been "talk and rumors" of a BLM roundup, "but there hasn't been any traffic out here," Skipper said.

Bundy's cattle, a Brahman-type breed, have been bred to survive in harsh environments.

Their ancestors came from India and have highly developed sweat glands that help them thrive in the arid Mojave, according to Oklahoma State University's Department of Animal Science. Centuries of meager food supplies, insect pests, parasites and diseases have made them remarkably resilient, the department said.

They also don't take kindly to humans.

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