Kerry White

Kerry White

As part of a larger push to have states take control of federal public land, some Montanans support a Nevada rancher who has refused to pay federal grazing fees.

That led to a conflict that attracted national attention and the interest of Gallatin Valley state representative Kerry White, R-Bozeman.

Rancher Cliven Bundy owes the Bureau of Land Management 20 years worth of fines, penalties and fees for grazing his cattle on public land near Bunkerville, Nevada.

Bundy owes more than $1 million and has been ordered to remove his cattle from an area that is home to a desert tortoise listed as a threatened species in 1989. He has ignored the order and refused to pay the government.

On April 5, government riders began impounding Bundy’s cattle. Within a week, armed Bundy sympathizers and militia members began collecting at the ranch.

Tensions increased at the ranch while, across the nation, some groups backed Bundy while others called him a lawbreaker.

Some Gallatin Valley residents cheered when White posted to his legislative Facebook page on April 12 that he would be traveling to Nevada to “stand with Mr. Bundy.”

“This is not about a turtle,” White wrote. “This is about property rights and our food supply. This is about State sovereignty.”

On the same day White posted his travel intentions, the BLM backed down, announcing it would not enforce the court order.

Bundy’s supporters celebrated, and some have vowed to use the same tactics in similar situations around the West.

White canceled his travel plans. He told the Chronicle that he thought the BLM overreacted, and once the BLM backed down, the danger passed. He’s keeping an eye on the situation.

“I was concerned about violence erupting. I had been in contact with some folks close to the Bundy Ranch and told them I’d be willing to go down there to calm the situation and show support,” White said. “As long as nothing escalates, I’ll hold off. But I’m fully prepared to go down if it’s something where I can possibly help.”

White is a member of the legislative Environmental Quality Council, which has met monthly as mandated by Senate Joint Resolution 15 to study the prospect of having Montana take over federal land in the state.

He said the events in Nevada are connected to things that are happening in Montana, since land management may be affected by sage grouse and grizzly bear initiatives.

“All of these things are federal actions that affect the lives of people and the disposition of land in Montana. So do the Bundys have any connection? It’s all coming from the federal government and there’s a lot of dissatisfaction with the federal government. So yeah, there is some connection,” White said. “But what occurs as we move forward remains to be seen.”

Many GOP state platforms strongly support states rights and local control of land management.

In a reprise of the Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s, one element of the party has taken that so far as to demand that all federal land be given to the states for the benefit of resource development.

Sen. Jennifer Fielder, R- Thompson Falls, also sits on the EQC and was the sponsor of SJ-15 in 2013.

Last week, Fielder traveled to Utah with state house speaker Mark Blasdel, R-Somers, to work with regional Republicans on strategies to take control of federal lands in the West.

Fielder and Utah Rep. Ken Ivory had organized the closed-door Legislative Summit on the Transfer of Public Lands before the Bundy incident, but Bundy ended up being a subject of discussion, according to the Salt Lake Tribune.

Fielder told the Tribune that federal land management is hamstrung by bad policies, politicized science and severe federal budget cuts.

White said he had planned on attending the summit but had other meetings to attend.

Montana Wildlife Federation spokesman Nick Gevock has testified against a federal-land takeover at almost every EQC meeting on SJ-15.

Gevock said that politicians who try to get rid of federal public land in Montana do so at their peril. A Colorado College poll shows 70 percent of Montanans oppose having the state take control of federal land.

“The polling data shows that this is broadly unpopular with Montanans. We all know that would lead to the land being sold to private interests because we don’t have the resources to manage it. All it would take is one big fire season and we’d be broke,” Gevock said. “Cliven Bundy doesn’t represent the vast majority of ranchers in the West, who pay their fees and play by the rules. There’s a reason that not one stockgrower’s group has supported Mr. Bundy.”


Support quality local journalism. Become a subscriber.

Subscribers get full, survey-free access to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle's award-winning coverage both on our website and in our e-edition, a digital replica of the print edition.