(Reuters) - When the U.S. government declared the Mojave desert tortoise an endangered species in 1989, it effectively marked the cattle ranchers of Nevada's Clark County for extinction.
Rancher Cliven Bundy once had neighbors on the range: when the tortoise was listed, there were about 50 cattle-ranching families in the county. Some of them fought court battles to stay, rejecting the idea their cattle posed a danger to the tortoises. But, one by one, they slowly gave up and disappeared.
Bundy has proven himself one of the most tenacious of this vanishing breed. Backed by armed militiamen, the rancher forced federal agents to stop rounding up his cattle in April, which were grazing illegally on public lands shared by the tortoises.
Bundy initially joined his neighbors in their legal fight to stay but then took a more hardline stance, refusing to recognize federal authority over the land. In 1993, he stopped paying grazing fees and his permit was canceled. In 1998, when authorities banned grazing on much of the federal range, he ignored a court order to move.
In its years-long dispute with Bundy, the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has portrayed the rancher as a scofflaw, free-riding on the backs of roughly 16,000 ranchers on BLM allotments across the United States who pay their grazing fees. They say he now owes $1 million, most of it fines.
But interviews with some of Bundy's former rancher neighbors and ex-BLM officials suggest the reality is more complex: in Clark County, at least, the BLM no longer wanted the ranchers’ fees. It wanted them off the range to fulfill its legal obligation to protect the tortoises living on its land. To achieve this, it joined forces with the county government.
Clark County is not an isolated case. Disputes over land rights are playing out in many Western states, especially in rural areas, where some residents and lawmakers question the legitimacy of the federal government's claim to swathes of land.
In New Mexico, a county government is arguing with federal land managers over whether a rancher can take his cattle to a fenced-off watering hole. In Utah, protesters have been defiantly driving all-terrain vehicles down a canyon trail closed by the U.S. government.
In Clark County, it was rancher versus tortoise.
"When they got the turtles listed as endangered ... they pushed to get the cattle off," said Melvin Hughes, who once ranched alongside Bundy on the Bunkerville allotment, one of a dozen or so large federal grazing areas in Clark County.
The rationale for ending grazing cited by federal government agencies was plausible but, the agencies conceded, unproven: that livestock grazing harms desert tortoise populations, in part because they compete for the same foods, such as grasses and the new spring growth of cacti.
"They said the cattle was eating the feed from the turtles," said Hughes. "Hogwash!"
When the tortoise was listed in 1989, Las Vegas, the county seat, was one of the fastest-growing U.S. cities. For Vegas to spread even an inch farther into the tortoise-filled desert risked a federal offense under the Endangered Species Act.
The county successfully sought a permit that would allow development that inadvertently killed tortoises in some parts of the county if they funded conservation efforts in other parts.
To get the permit, the county made numerous commitments to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to help the desert tortoise thrive. One of those promises was to pay willing ranchers to give up their grazing rights.
"Clark County made a choice: urban development is far more important to us than ranchers on the periphery of the county,” said James Skillen, author of a book about the BLM called “The Nation’s Largest Landlord."
"The BLM is part of that larger tension between a kind of urban and environmentally conscious West and a traditional resource West," he said. "Those conflicts are just going to keep going and the Endangered Species Act is going to continue to be a mechanism of that conflict."
Clark County officials did not respond to interview requests.
Bundy's refusal to recognize federal authority over the range has made him a folk hero in some conservative quarters. His two-bedroom home, in which he raised 14 children, sits south of a spill of lush grasses and reeds along the Virgin River.
Wise-cracking militia men with holstered handguns check the identities of visitors to guard against intrusion by federal agents. Although Bundy's popularity was badly dented by his widely reported remarks in which he wondered whether black people were worse off now than under slavery, dozens of supporters remain in camps on his property.
Bundy maintains the BLM’s aim from almost the moment the tortoise was listed was to drive the ranchers out of Clark County on a pretext he dismissed as "wacko environmental stuff."
"I could tell that the BLM was trying to manage us out of business," Bundy told Reuters, explaining his decision to stop paying grazing fees.
His critics say he is ignoring laws that do not suit him and treating public land as if it is his own private range.The BLM said it could not answer specific questions about the Clark County disputes.
One of Bundy’s former neighbors is his cousin Kelly Jensen, a fourth-generation cattleman who owned a 40-acre ranch and grazed his cattle on the public lands around it.
Life as a rancher was not a lucrative business, Jensen recalled. Most of the Bunkerville allotment’s 160,000 acres is arid brown-dusted desert.
He estimated the profit on a cow sold for slaughter was about $50. Still, he said, ranching was “in the blood,” and he liked its self-sufficiency: if you needed a new fridge, you just sold a couple of cows.
Desert tortoises, which can live more than 60 years, have always been part of the landscape. They face myriad threats: development, disease and a huge explosion in the population of ravens, which prey on young tortoises. People sometimes shoot tortoises or crush them in their cars.
In its 1989 listing of the tortoise, the Fish and Wildlife Service named all those threats and more, including livestock grazing. But in 1994, it acknowledged in its Desert Tortoise Recovery Plan that the "extremely controversial" question of whether cattle harmed tortoise populations was not settled.
In 2002, the U.S. Geological Survey said in a report that the evidence for the harm done by cattle was "not overwhelming." William Boarman, the biologist who wrote the report, said he was not aware of subsequent studies showing a strong link.
Still, the Fish and Wildlife Service said in its recovery plan, until it could be proved beyond doubt that the two species could get along, grazing should be banned in critical tortoise habitat.
Soon after the tortoise was listed, the BLM issued an emergency rule requiring the ranchers to remove their cattle from the range, according to the ranchers. A group of them hired a lawyer and asked for a hearing before an administrative law judge to overrule the order.
"Our argument was that livestock grazing on these allotments in these circumstances is not harming the desert tortoise," said Karen Budd-Falen, the lawyer the ranchers hired. "The court ruled from the bench: the cows can stay, the BLM is wrong."
About a year later, the BLM again issued a clearance order, and the ranchers won a second victory in court. It didn't matter in the long term: the BLM began tightening grazing rules and working with Clark County to convince the ranchers to leave.
"We won the case, but we still have to get off the range," rancher Jensen said.
Bob Abbey, who was the BLM's Nevada director for much of this period, acknowledged that the steps taken by the BLM to protect the tortoise had made life difficult for some ranchers.
"When you limit grazing in such a prescriptive nature many ranchers feel they cannot make a living," he said. Abbey said the BLM worked with Clark County to offer payments to the ranchers because it was the "fairest way of resolving" the issue.
Some ranchers seemed happy with the money they were offered, said Budd-Falen, the lawyer.
But ranchers interviewed by Reuters said that given the choice they were presented with, their sales were hardly willing.
"We had no say in what we were going to get," said Calvin Adams, who also ranched on the Bunkerville allotment.
About seven years after first fighting the BLM before a judge, he accepted $75,000 to give up his grazing rights. "I couldn't afford to pay the lawyers when they just keep taking you to court," he said.
It is not clear how many ranchers accepted a buyout and how many left for other reasons. Either way, the efforts of Clark County and the BLM were effective: it took many years, but eventually more than 1 million acres of federal rangeland was emptied of cattle apart from those belonging to Bundy.
TOO SOON TO TELL
Clark County has spent millions of dollars of developers' money on conservation efforts, from signage to studies, and relocated thousands of tortoises that were in the way of development projects into conservation areas.
But the development allowed by the county's permit has killed hundreds of tortoises, too. A 2001 report by the county estimated that upwards of 400 tortoises were killed each year in building projects after it dropped a mandatory requirement to relocate tortoises before construction began.
It is still too soon to tell whether the tortoise population is recovering, or at least holding stable, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service and biologists.
Meanwhile public land in Clark County's Dry Lake Valley has been zoned for solar energy development. For any projects to proceed, developers would have to balance the damage by conserving tortoise habitat elsewhere.
The BLM says it has found a perfect swathe of land for these conservation efforts, pending final approval. There is one problem: it is home to hundreds of Bundy's trespassing cattle.
Bundy may soon find he is in the way all over again.