Gopherus agassizii is the binomial name given to the desert tortoise, a roughly foot-long creature with a lifespan that can stretch to more than half-a-century. This turtle inhabits the Mojave Desert in America’s great southwest. On paper, the desert tortoise seems an innocuous amphibian; however, it has the curious attribute of being able provoke nearly open warfare between U.S. citizens and the federal government.
The notion of a “range war” may harken back to the days of the American cowboy riding the fence each morning and protecting his homestead from attack. Yet, last week the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM), acting on behalf of a court order to seize cattle from Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy because Uncle Sam claimed he owed $1-million in unpaid “grazing fees,” launched an armed action against Bundy, his family and friends from across the area. The government also asserted – with a straight face – that such action was justified because Bundy’s cattle threatened the habitat of the endangered desert tortoise.
Those grazing fees, which the government claims have accumulated by Bundy over a two-decade period during which time he allowed his cattle to graze on lands managed by BLM, represent just 0.1 percent of the BLM’s annual budget. Yet, the government deemed the amount sufficient to justify seizing Bundy’s cattle and confronting Bundy and other ranchers who rallied to his cause, with automatic weapons, attack dogs, and snipers.
The magnitude of the government’s actions in confronting a rancher over an alleged unpaid bill was truly breathtaking. Even the FAA – the Federal Aviation Administration – got into the act; declaring the scrub brush area in which the confrontation occurred to be a “no-fly zone,” apparently to keep prying news media helicopters away in the event the confrontation escalated into open violence.
Fears of another violent and deadly confrontation such as occurred 20 years ago at the Branch Davidian compound outside Waco, Texas, were not without foundation. A lengthy series of congressional hearings in 1995 (in which I participated) examined in detail the circumstances before, during and after the Waco tragedy in which federal agents, deploying military equipment, stormed the Branch Davidian compound and ignited a horrific fire that took the lives of some six dozen men, women, children and infants. We saw how what should have been – and easily could have been – a dispute peaceably resolved, escalate into a massive tragedy because of ego, bureaucratic snafus, predisposition to use force, and an unwillingness to admit error. Many of the same ingredients appeared present last week in Nevada.