In June 2015, for the first time since federal officers confronted Cliven Bundy and militia members over Bundy’s illegal grazing in 2014, the Bureau of Land Management sent a survey crew to the Gold Butte area near Bunkerville, Nevada. The three surveyors from the Great Basin Institute were there to inventory springs, cattle troughs and seeps. According to contemporary news reports, they encountered Cliven Bundy and his son, Ryan Bundy, who spoke with them briefly and asked what they were doing. Later that night, as the surveyors were getting into their tents, a vehicle lit up the camp with its headlights as it drove by, and shortly afterward, three gunshots rang out nearby. An hour later, they heard three more shots. The surveyors packed up in the dark, left, and did not come back. Cliven Bundy told reporters he had not fired the shots, and the BLM kept out of Gold Butte.
Since the standoff at Bunkerville, Cliven Bundy’s roughly 1,000 cattle have remained at large. Nor has the rancher paid the more than $1 million he owes in grazing fees and fines. Bundy hasn’t escaped altogether, though: In February, he was arrested en route to support his sons’ armed occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Oregon. He is now behind bars awaiting trial in 2017. But in other respects, Bundy got what he wanted: His cattle still graze for free on Gold Butte, just as they have done for the past two decades, despite a 1999 ban, and there was little to no federal oversight for two years.
In June, one year after the survey crew retreated, BLM workers finally returned to Gold Butte. “It was not a safe place for [federal workers] to be,” says Jaina Moan, executive director of Friends of Gold Butte, a group that advocates for and provides education about the 350,000-acre swath of BLM-managed desert.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., an outspoken critic who has called Bundy and his sons domestic terrorists, has been blunt about the link between the militia atmosphere created by the Bundys and the continuing threats to BLM workers. “Because of trouble caused by the Bundys and their pals, the federal employees tasked with safely guarding these antiquities were prevented from doing their jobs,” Reid said on the Senate floor in April. “These employees have been under constant physical and mental threat for doing what the American people have tasked them to do.” Nationwide, threats against BLM employees shot up 87 percent during 2015, and by 60 percent against U.S. Fish and Wildlife employees, according to a report by the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.
Damage includes bullet holes in rock art, stolen signs, and 22 miles of illegal irrigation.
The absence of federal workers did not go unnoticed. Friends of Gold Butte published a report in August detailing the damage inflicted on the area in the last two years, as well as documenting some historic bullet-hole damage. Graffiti and bullet holes riddle the petroglyphs and red sandstone, signs have been removed, and the area is marred by off-road tire tracks and trash. Twenty-two miles of illegal irrigation have been trenched through the desert, and a chopped-down Joshua tree was left to rot. The BLM is continuing to assess the situation, and so far staffers can’t say how much the illegal irrigation trenching and vehicle incursions have affected local wildlife populations. “Once this happens, it persists through time,” Moan says of the graffiti and general disregard for the area by visitors.
The damage has given advocates even more reason to fight for a national monument designation, something Friends of Gold Butte and the nearby Moapa Band of Paiutes have been advocating for years. The area is currently designated as an area of critical environmental concern because it provides habitat for the threatened Mojave desert tortoise and for desert bighorn sheep. It’s also of cultural significance to the Moapa Band of Paiutes, whose ancestors created the ancient petroglyphs. The area was included within their reservation boundaries in 1873, and then cut out years later. Making Gold Butte a national monument would secure the Moapa’s heritage sites from further destruction, former tribal chairman William Anderson says.
But the window of opportunity is starting to narrow. President Barack Obama, who has created 25 national monuments during his tenure, has just a few months left in office to designate Gold Butte, and the proposal’s most prominent congressional ally, Sen. Reid, is retiring amid a heated race for his seat.
William Anderson links the fight to protect Gold Butte with a national monument to other struggles over tribal sovereignty. He sees the Bears Ears national monument struggle in Utah, Oak Flats mining of Apache heritage sites in Arizona, and the current protests at Standing Rock by Sioux in North Dakota as similar examples of tribes fighting to preserve their culture.
“For us, we know that what we’re doing here is something that needs to be done across the country,” Anderson says. “To protect public lands.”
This story was published by High Country News. Photo by David Bly/Friends of Gold Butte