Nevada showdown: All hat, no cattle

Nevada cattle rancher Cliven Bundy and his well-armed supporters forced the well-armed federal government to back down and return Bundy’s seized cows — which were seized because Bundy, 67, stopped paying grazing fees in 1993. How does anyone get the government to back down?

At first blush, Bundy seemed to have right on his side. He’s a cowboy who just wants to keep being a cowboy.

The federal government, which owns more than 80 percent of Nevada land, including the land on which the Bundy family had settled, threatened to put him out to pasture. The Bureau of Land Management told the rancher he would have to cut back cattle grazing on federal lands to accommodate the threatened desert tortoise. So in 1993, Bundy stopped paying federal grazing fees. “They were managing my ranch out of business,” Bundy explained, “so I refused to pay.”

As the Las Vegas Review-Journal editorialized, the federal government has endangered a Western way of life in deference to “the ‘threatened’ desert tortoise and a supposedly fragile desert ecosystem that somehow has sustained cattle and the reptiles since the 19th century.”

The BLM surely has earned its black-hat reputation in Nevada. In a classic example of federal overreach, the BLM carved out a small “First Amendment Area” for pro-Bundy protesters, which only fueled the public’s distrust of government. Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval suggested that the BLM reconsider its approach to constitutional rights — and Sandoval’s a former federal judge, whom you would expect to stand up for the federal court orders Bundy is flouting.

Sandoval issued a statement before the BLM backed down in which he argued, “No cow justifies the atmosphere of intimidation” that he was placing on BLM’s doorstep.

That sentiment ought to apply to Bundy, as well. The rancher says he does not recognize the authority of federal courts. “I abide by all of Nevada state laws,” Breitbart Texas reports that the scion told talk radio. “But I don’t recognize the United States government as even existing.”

He was willing to start a “range war” and risk the lives of his supporters in order to retrieve some cows. He doesn’t feel he has to recognize a government elected by his fellow citizens.

The BLM clearly can be accused of overreach, but who elected Bundy to be judge, jury and sheriff?

Bundy could have fought the government at the ballot box by trying to elect members of Congress who want to defang the BLM. (It’s strange when you realize that for all their anti-Washington sentiments, Nevada voters have sent Harry Reid to the Senate repeatedly since 1986.) That’s the American way. Threatening to shoot law enforcement officers who simply are carrying out court orders is not.

Email Debra J. Saunders at dsaunders@sfchronicle.com.

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