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The wild un-wild West


“We try to pin its tail under its body so it doesn’t pee,” instructed Brett as she carefully lifted the desert tortoise. The advice was as much for the tortoise’s benefit as for the handler’s: Out in the desert surrounding Las Vegas, water is a rare and precious commodity. Although Brett and her field ecology team carried tiny water bowls along on their surveys, it was always best to prevent the tortoise from wasting any of its precious supply in the first place.

The harsh environment — shaped by the combination of heat and lack of water — is what makes the desert tortoise such a secretive and rare creature. We found this one (which had a two-foot antenna epoxied to its shell) using radio telemetry, a technique field biologists sometimes use to track wildlife.

Today, thanks to human-driven habitat loss, the desert tortoise is rarer than ever; it is listed as “Threatened” (just shy of “Endangered”) by the Federal Government.

For that reason, it finds itself involved in the conflict surrounding a group of humans who consider their lifestyle to be as threatened as the tortoise’s.

Unlike the tortoise, these ranchers are anything but secretive about their needs and lifestyles. And now, they’re armed and dangerous.

The story of Cliven Bundy, a Nevada farmer currently in a standoff with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, reads like some kind of anachronistic, anarchist Wild West showdown to a city slicker like me.

Bundy has been ranching cattle for decades on the land surrounding his family’s homestead, 80 miles from Las Vegas. The thing is, he hasn’t been doing it on his own land.

Instead, he’s been letting his cattle graze on Federal lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management. And, since 1993, he hasn’t been paying the permitting fees to do so.

According to the BLM, Bundy has now racked up $1 million in unpaid fees and fines. According to Bundy, he has been exercising his unalienable right as a descendant of Mormon settlers to use land that the Federal government is trying to steal out from beneath him.

Frustrated, and certain Bundy wouldn’t change his ways, the BLM decided to round up and confiscate his cattle as they grazed (illegally) on public land.

And that’s where things started to get hairy.

You can spend days sorting through the finger-pointing he-said-she-said details, but what it boils down to is the present-day armed standoff between Bundy plus his supporters (apparently, primarily militiamen and gun-rights lobbyists with ambiguous agendas) and the Federal government (for once the voice of order and reason). Around the time that the militiamen started saying they planned to put women and children at their front lines so that “it’s going to be women that are going to be televised all across the world getting shot by these rogue federal officers,” the BLM decided to back off, at least temporarily.

But they can’t let this go forever. We must regulate grazing on our public lands because of a phenomenon known as the “Tragedy of the Commons.”

The “tragedy” occurs when a publicly owned good is degraded by the use of multiple people acting in their own individual (short-term) best interests. Cattle grazing is (literally) the textbook example. Each individual rancher stands to profit more if he squeezes a few more animals onto the public grazing land. When each rancher does this, the public land becomes degraded, often to the extent that it can no longer support any cattle — and precious little wildlife, for that matter. And because the land is in the public domain rather than under the private control of the ranchers using it, the ranchers have very little economic stake in maintaining its health.

In the United States, the vast majority of grazing land is privately owned and, at least theoretically, protected from degradation by the self-interest of its owners. But of the 245 million acres that the BLM manages, 155 million are parceled out under grazing permits and wind up serving as a sort of subsidy to ranchers whose herds can now exceed their personal means.

Theoretically, such a system could work — provided the BLM strictly limits the number of grazing animals to a conservative estimate of what the land can support and has the teeth to enforce those limits.

But the fracas raised over a single Nevada rancher suggests that a better approach might be to close public lands to grazing altogether. Let ranchers own their own land and find ways to avoid the Tragedy of the Commons on their own terms. And let public lands be used as public goods — devoted to recreation, wildlife conservation and the like.

The desert tortoise, whose millennia of evolution have made it the perfect desert denizen, will certainly appreciate it, even if Cliven Bundy and his gang of anarchists do not.


Holly welcomes reader feedback at hollyvm “at”

Holly is a Ph.D. student in Ecology and Evolution, with interests that range from marine microbes to trees and mushrooms to the future of human life on this swiftly tilting planet. She's been writing "Seeing Green" since 2007, and still hasn't run out of environmental issues to cover, so to stay sane she goes for long runs, communes with redwood trees and does yoga (badly).