Bundy trial calls Sagebrush Rebellion into stark relief

Bundy trial calls Sagebrush Rebellion into stark relief

By Marielle Grenade-Willis

As the Cliven Bundy trial continues with fits of dramatic monologues about the Constitution, discrepancies over video evidence, and now, disbelief at Bundy’s refusal to be released from jail, it is a good time to reassert the history of the Sagebrush Rebellion and how this trial brings its sentiments into stark relief.

Specifically, what does the Bundy trial have to do with our nation’s opinions on public lands and the work Friends of Animals does on behalf of how species such as wild horses are controlled? 

Originating as a local movement to subvert federal control over Western lands in the 1960s and 1970s, the Sagebrush Rebellion consisted of ranchers, resource extraction corporations, and other interested parties resisting the supposed impediment of federal agencies, to determine how lands were managed. The rebellion efforts were led by ranching interests from such states as Nevada where nearly 90 percent of the state’s land is overseen by a variety of federal agencies — including the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Air Force, and the U.S. Forest Service who advocated for a shift of power back to the states.

Tension grew throughout the latter half of the twentieth century between cattlemen and the BLM when the agency called for herd reductions on public lands due to signs of impeding landscape degradation. Many bills were introduced in state legislatures across the west advocating for land control by the states, but empty legal claims along with President Ronald Reagan’s election diffused tensions.

Additionally, ranchers and miners also started having second thoughts that state control would be more beneficial. The High Country News noted that a power transfer would end up costing the states millions and without federal control, entities would lose resource privileges:

Many ranchers and miners had second thoughts about the states taking over federal land, as well. Hardrock miners have nearly unfettered access to federal lands and have to pay no royalties for the minerals they extract. Oil and gas drillers pay low royalties, and ranchers get a prime deal for grazing on BLM lands. They were worried they’d lose those deals under state management—royalties and grazing fees for state lands can be 50 percent higher or more than for federal lands.

How does this relate to the work that Friends of Animals does on behalf of wild horses? The Sagebrush Rebellion advocates an American mythos that is not based on reality. Although he would never admit it, ranchers like Bundy have benefitted from the BLM’s loose management of public lands. With grazing fees amounting to just $1.69 per animal unit (in 2015), ranchers have enjoyed unbridled supremacy when other species have suffered.

Here are some startling facts, according to a report by the Daily Pitchfork:

  • Privately owned livestock are on 97% of the 251 million acres managed by BLM and the U.S. Forest Service.
  • In 2014, grazing cattle outnumbered wild horses by 37:1, meaning that there were 2.1 million cattle to 56,656 wild horses.
  • Cattle grazing causes a variety of environmental and public health issues:
  • Water removal from key watersheds to irrigate herd forage
  • Displacement of native wildlife and spread of invasive species
  • Fossil fuel depletion
  • Transmission of foodborne illnesses such as those caused by cryptosporidium and giardia contamination in food products and drinking water

“America’s public lands should not be used as private feed lots for the meat industry’s cowboy ranchers,’’ said Priscilla Feral, president of Friends of Animals. “If Western landscapes are to recover, wild horses can’t be hammered for the negative impacts of domestic livestock production.”

Check back for further updates as we continue to follow this important trial.