All this over some cattle?

By Jayson Jacoby, The Baker City Herald

We're not convinced that the federal government's roundup last week of a Nevada rancher's cattle, an operation carried out with guns and helicopters, is the best way to resolve this two-decades-old dispute.

Although hundreds of people who support rancher Cliven Bundy and his family showed up to protest the cattle roundup, we don't believe the situation, which has more to do with cattle, public land grazing policy and an endangered species of tortoise than it does with protecting the public, warranted such aggressive tactics.

Bundy's situation isn't a case study in private property rights. The land where his 900 cattle have been grazing belongs to the public and is managed by the BLM.

In 1993 the agency canceled Bundy's grazing privileges because, officials said, cattle were harming habitat for the endangered desert tortoise.

Bundy challenged the BLM's decision and he continued to allow his cattle to graze, without permits, on public land. Back then Bundy also ceased paying his grazing fees, and BLM officials say he's racked up a bill of about $1.2 million.

In 1998 a federal judge ordered Bundy to remove his cattle from the disputed public lands.

Last year federal courts also said the BLM could round up Bundy's cattle.

Fortunately the BLM, after gathering about 400 of the 900 cattle the agency planned to corral, decided to give those animals back to Bundy last weekend.

Although we don't think SWAT teams and stun guns, one of which was used to subdue one of Bundy's sons, are necessary to enforce the court order, neither should Bundy be allowed to indefinitely ignore federal laws that he doesn't like, but has failed to prevail against in court. The vast majority of ranchers, including many in Baker County, who graze cattle on public lands, pay their annual fees and otherwise follow the rules that have been in place since the 1930s.

Bundy points out that his family has run cattle in the disputed area since the 19th century, but that's irrelevant - he has no title to the land. The cattle belong to him but the land doesn't. It's little different than a rancher arguing that because he once used the pasture that's now owned by a neighbor, that he's entitled to keep using that land, and without paying a fee.

One possible solution to this conflict involves going back to its causes.

The federal government should review the status of the desert tortoise. Considering Bundy has continued to graze his cattle on the tortoise's supposedly critical habitat for 20 years, it might be that canceling his grazing privileges was never necessary.

Such a review could sow the seeds of a settlement.

Ideally, Bundy will start paying grazing fees, as he used to, and as most ranchers do.

Then the BLM can stop wasting money rounding up cattle that, whatever problems they might cause for tortoises, pose no proximate threat to our republic.

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The Baker City Herald
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