You are here

Decades-Long Cattle Trespass Comes To A Head For Lake Mead National Recreation Area And BLM


A view of the former Bunkerville Grazing Allotment in April 2012, with the Virgin Mountains in the background. Photo copyright Ralph Maughan.

In a situation that reads like a bad plot from an old western movie, officials with the Bureau of Land Management and Lake Mead National Recreation Area are hoping for a peaceful resolution of a cattle trespass dispute with a Nevada rancher that has lasted more than 20 years. It's a tense and tricky situation.

What's going on the desert northeast of Las Vegas?

The answer goes all the way back to the 1800s, when parts of the West were settled by ranchers who controlled vast areas of open range simply by securing relatively small tracts that included scarce and essential water sources'”and then grazing their livestock on the adjoining land.

As more settlers looking for their own land arrived, open range was often overgrazed, disputes arose, and the resulting conflicts provided fodder for many a western novel and movie. Order was eventually secured by a combination of land surveys to define property lines, systems such as the Homestead Act to allow orderly transfer of public land to private ownership, and institutions such as courts and law enforcement to keep the peace.

Grazing Leases and the Bureau of Land Management

Public land which was not legally converted into private ownership remained in the public domain, and some ranchers continue to use public property to supplement their private range. Much of that public land is being managed today by the U. S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and that agency faces a challenging and often controversial task: "to manage and conserve the public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations under our mandate of multiple-use and sustained yield."

Alternate Text
The BLM manages grazing permits on public land all across the West. BLM photo.

One of those "multiple uses" is grazing, and a dispute between a rancher named Cliven Bundy and the BLM over the use of land in southern Nevada has lasted for more than 20 years. The former grazing lease, known as the Bunkerville allotment, includes public land managed by both the BLM and National Park Service at Lake Mead National Recreation Area, with the BLM handling grazing issues for the NPS.

"Multiple Use" Can Lead to Conflicts

A mandate to manage large areas of land for such diverse uses as grazing, wildlife, recreation, mining, timber and energy development often leads to conflicts, and that's the case on the Bunkerville allotment.

Beginning in 1993, the BLM informed Mr. Bundy about limits on the number of cattle he could graze on the allotment in order to meet regulations to protect wildlife, particularly a threatened species, the desert tortoise. Mr. Bundy refused to accept the limits and stopped paying the required fees for his grazing permit ... but continued to run his cattle on the property.

The BLM subsequently cancelled the grazing permit, and in 1997, Clarke County, Nevada, purchased all the active grazing permits in the area to conserve them for wildlife needs. A tentative proposal was made to Mr. Bundy to compensate him for any stock water rights or range improvements he might have in his former allotment. He rejected the offer...and continued to run his cattle.

Failed Negotiations Lead To Court Cases

After further attempts to negotiate with Mr. Bundy failed, a series of court cases that extended up to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld an injunction which permanently enjoined Mr. Bundy from grazing cattle on the Bunkerville allotment, and ordered him to remove all trespass cattle. He refused, despite notices that the livestock would be subject to impoundment and removal if they remained.

While the legal wrangling continued, the number of cattle in the area continued to grow. In 1999, the BLM was able to document 51 head of Bundy cattle on federal range in the allotment; by 2011, over 900 cattle were counted by a helicopter survey of the rugged terrain.

Mr. Bundy apparently concedes that he has never owned any of the land in question, but disputes the BLM's jurisdiction; he contends he has the right to continue to use the property, since his family has been doing so since the 1880s.

Alternate Text
Damage to soil and vegetation from concentrated use by trespass cattle in the former Bunkerville Allotment. BLM photo.

The BLM Still Manages Lots of Grazing Permits

The BLM has taken pains to point out that it is not anti-grazing, noting that it "administers approximately 18,000 grazing permits and leases on 157 million acres of public lands..."Ranching continues throughout Southern Nevada on public and private lands," the agency notes. "BLM currently has three active grazing allotments on more than 100,000 acres of public lands in Southern Nevada."

Kirsten Cannon, spokeswoman for the Nevada BLM office in Reno, says, 'œHis cattle have been illegally trespassing on federal land for two decades and it'™s just unfair for those who ranch in compliance,' she said. 'œWe made repeated attempts to resolve this. The courts have ordered him to move his cattle. Now we'™ve reached the last resort, which is impoundment.'

You can read a summary of the history of the dispute at this BLM link, and the agency, under increasing pressure from other local landowners and conservation groups, has decided it's time to remove the cattle and resolve the issue.

There's no doubt that Mr. Bundy has flouted the legal system for years, but you might wonder what else is at stake in this situation.

A Long List of Problems Caused by Trespass Livestock

The BLM cites a long list of problems caused by Mr. Bundy's cattle. Among the issues are damage by the cattle to springs and vegetation on public land and trampling of artifacts at cultural sites. Crops on adjacent private property have been damaged by foraging livestock, and residents of the communities of Bunkerville and Mesquite have complained about the impact of trespass cattle on city facilities, including the Mesquite Heritage Community Garden and the Mesquite golf course.

If you've even been around cattle which aren't accustomed to being "worked" regularly by humans, you'll understand the safety concerns for visitors and employees using the BLM and park lands in question. According to the BLM, "a State of Nevada employee at the Overton Wildlife Refuge has been attacked by a Bundy bull, and a feral cow was hit by an automobile within Lake Mead National Recreation Area. Cattle are frequently seen on public roads, including State Route 170, and pose a danger to vehicles and to members of the public traveling on public roads."

There have been other economic costs from the trespass livestock. The Nevada State Department of Wildlife has had to build extensive fences to protect state and federal lands in the Overton Wildlife Refuge from the cattle. The Walton Family Foundation had offered $400,000 for a matching grant to restore wildlife habitat in the area, but has withdrawn the funds until the trespass cattle have been removed. It's a reasonable decision; restoration efforts would be a waste of money as long as the cattle continue to roam and damage the area.

Two Decades of Waiting May Be Coming to an End

So, what's next?

Alternate Text
These trespass cattle, removed off public land in northern Nevada, are being cared for until they are claimed and fines/impoundment fees are paid. BLM photo.

According to a statement from Lake Mead National Recreation Area, "The BLM and NPS have made repeated attempts to resolve this matter administratively and judicially. Impoundment of cattle illegally grazing on public lands is an option of last resort. The BLM and NPS are working closely with local, state and federal officials to ensure the gather of unauthorized cattle occurs in a safe and orderly manner."

During what will undoubtedly be a challenging roundup, the area involved will be closed to public use from March 27 through May 12. The park website notes, "Only a small portion of the northern and eastern part of the park will be temporarily closed, and Echo Bay, Stewarts Point, Redstone and the hot springs along Northshore Road remain open." You can view a map of the area  within the park involved in the closure  at this link.

Bundy's Response

So, what's Mr. Bundy's reaction to the latest developments? That's a cause for concern, and at least part of the reason for the closure of the area to the public during the impending roundup.

A previous roundup scheduled for 2012 was cancelled due to fears of a violent confrontation with Bundy, and the BLM opted for one more try at a solution in the courts. That cancellation in turn brought threats of a lawsuit against the BLM from an environmental group, for failure to enforce court orders to remove the livestock. In 2013, the BLM prevailed once again in court.

Bundy's response to the numerous court orders to remove his cattle has been succinct. "At first I said, 'No,'" he told The Los Angeles Times last year, "Then I said, 'Hell, no.'"

"I've got to protect my property," Bundy told the Times. "If people come to monkey with what's mine, I'll call the county sheriff. If that don't work, I'll gather my friends and kids and we'll try to stop it. I abide by all state laws. But I abide by almost zero federal laws."

The County Sheriff Urges A Peaceful Solution

It doesn't appear the county sheriff plans to intervene on the Bundys' behalf. According to Carol Bundy, the rancher's wife, 'œWe want him to step in and tell these federal characters that '˜This is Clark County, Nevada, land and you have go through me to get these cattle.'™ But we have not heard a word.'

For his part, Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie understands the days of the 19th century range wars are long past. The Las Vegas Review-Journal quoted Gillespie as saying: 'œI'™m always concerned when there are situations like this where there is so much emotion. I hope calmer heads will prevail like they normally do. You'™re talking about rounding up cattle. You have to keep that in perspective. No drop of human blood is worth spilling over any cow, in my opinion.'

He absolutely right. Let's hope everyone else involved in this situation agrees.


This individual is an example of the "Sagebrush Rebellion" crowd who reject federal authority. The area is so poorly suited for grazing cattle that ranching can only be profitable by running cows on vast areas of the desert which he doesn't own.

What's the legal background of the property? The United States acquired ownership of the land in question from Mexico via the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848), long before Mr. Bundy claims his family started using the property. The Nevada Territory was officially established in 1861; Nevada became a state in 1864.

This site ( offers a summary of the original constitution of the State of Nevada, which was approved by the vote of the people of the Territory of Nevada in 1864 (before Bundy's first claimed use of the land). It says the requirements of the congressional act enabling Nevada statehood "included ... the statement that all undistributed public lands would be retained by the federal government..."

He doesn't have any legal claim, and rejected offers by the county to buy out the value of his grazing lease. Hopefully, he'll end this peacefully.

I will never understand why land management agencies go to such great lengths to avoid bruising the delicate egos of public lands ranchers. Would it be okay if I was trespassing on his land for 20 years? I'm pretty sure I would have been arrested a long time ago. Why is this the one occupation that gets to claim that "western tradition" means they never have to change anything about how they make a living, regardless of the burden they place on everyone else? We can't have wolves because that would mean ranchers would have to actually watch after their livestock (too much work). We can't have buffalo because ranchers don't want to deal with the brucellosis problem created by livestock (that's expecting too much accountability). Most importantly, we can't have cattle free public land throughout much of the west because then ranchers like Bundy might have to make a living that doesn't depend on massive damage to public resources (finding another job takes would require too much initiative and creativity).

Seriously, this guy should be rounded up with his cattle.

Coyote, as a member of the Canis latrans family, you should already know that western ranchers pack unduly heavy influence with western Congresscritters. And those western Congresscritters pack a whole lot of influence on western land managers.

Rumor is Mr 'Empty Hat' Bundy sat idly by as he watched a caravan of BLM agents and hired hands move equipment past his melon farm and onto our public lands last Friday...

As a coyote, I should clarify my previous statement. I don't actually want any more wolves around.

I once lived in Poudre Canyon, which is west of Fort Collins, CO. The land was "open range" managed by BLM I believe. The strange part to me was that the BLM told the rancher he could ranch so many head per acre per month, but allowed them to use the following math; x number,per month times twelve months divided by the number of months they acually used. So for about three months of the year their were four times as many cows. I am not saying its wrong or right. Maybe they assume that is what they rancher will do.

This was great example of the militarization of the DOI agencies. A huge waste of money over the years arming federal agencies who's sole use is point guns at Americans when they don't comply. The amount of money used to arm agencies would have put a serious dent in the backlog of maintenance.

National Parks Traveler's Essential Park Guide