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.
While the risk of violence has – thankfully – subsided (at least for the moment), important questions remain.
Why did the federal government jeopardize the lives of its own employees and of many innocent civilians, simply to protect a turtle and to collect on an outstanding (and disputed) grazing bill?
The Bundy Ranch debacle also raises serious questions about this Administration’s control of its own agencies. Was the BLM so scared of a single rancher who (perhaps rightfully) questioned the federal government’s authority on an issue best left to the state itself, that it decided the only course of action open to it was to surround his ranch with armed agents from multiple agencies? Were there not other options for enforcement of these fees? Are turtles that might be living in the area so important to our country that we should risk killing civilians over them?
“Instead of resolving this in a peaceful way; instead of docketing his property with a judgment,” Judge Andrew Napolitano argued on FOX Business this week, “they swooped in. . . with assault rifles aimed and ready, and stole [Bundy’s] property.”
Even worse than apparent violations of Bundy’s due process rights, the BLM’s actions are another alarming sign that the constitutional rights --and lives -- of U.S. citizens are considered expendable when balanced against the government’s need to enforce control over land and citizens.
Given that the federal government owns more than 80 percent of the land within the state of Nevada, the standoff at Bundy Ranch may very well be far from over; especially if we are to take Nevada’s Democratic Senator Harry Reid at his word. “It’s not over,” Reid ominously told reporters after the BLM’s tactical retreat. “We can’t have an American people that violate the law and then just walk away from it. So it’s not over.”
That is precisely why an official congressional inquiry into the BLM’s handling of the case, as well as Senator Reid’s curious involvement, is needed immediately if we are to prevent future potentially deadly situations from occurring the next time the BLM – or any of the other dozens of federal bureaucracies whose employees are authorized to carry and use weapons against civilians -- decides someone owes it money.
We might also wonder why a U.S. President appears so ready to risk violence between its agents and its citizens, when he seems so hesitant to risk confrontation when defending our security interests abroad.