What the Networks Aren't Telling You About the Nevada Cattle Battle

The showdown between federal authorities and rancher Cliven Bundy, his family and supporters in Nevada is one of those rare topics from the libertarian-conservative news agenda that actually made its way into the establishment media. Between last Thursday and Monday, ABC, CBS and NBC gave the story a total of nearly 16 minutes of coverage on their morning and evening newscasts.

Network journalists have consistently framed the case as one of a rancher failing to pay the requested fees for his use of government land. But they have failed to use the case to tell the larger story of how environmental rules — in this case, regulations to protect the desert tortoise, have been implemented in ways that help favored interests (land developers, or solar companies) while hurting others (cattle ranchers, for example).

The networks have focused on the amount of money the government has demanded of Cliven Bundy, and let the Bundy side talk about the government’s heavy-handed tactics in seeking collection. On Saturday’s Good Morning America, for example, ABC’s Mike Boettcher framed the story this way: “For 20 years, rancher Cliven Bundy has refused to pay rent to herd his cattle on government land, $1.1 million in grazing fees.”

The next morning on NBC, Sunday’s Today included a soundbite from Bundy’s son, Ammon, talking about the intimidating force employed by federal agents: “They had the tasers, they had the weapons, they had the dogs, and we had nothing except us. We were almost equally numbered, and then they were the aggressors.”

Omitted from the network coverage: How cattle ranchers like Bundy have been victimized by federal government plans to protect the desert tortoise, and how the current showdown was provoked by an environmentalist lawsuit. As the Las Vegas Sun explained: “Things came to a head when environmentalists threatened to sue the agency to protect the endangered desert tortoise that lives on the land where Bundy’s cattle grazed. The BLM said Bundy’s cattle trampled the tortoise’s habitat.”

In their coverage of the Nevada showdown, neither ABC nor NBC ever acknowledged the role of regulations designed to protect the tortoise, while CBS’s Teri Okita in a Friday morning report included it as an afterthought: “Authorities want the cattle off this land for another reason: Environmentalists say it’s home to the endangered desert tortoise and it’s protected land.”

In fact, the tortoise is listed as a “threatened” species, not yet “endangered,” but it’s that designation (applied in 1989) which led to restrictions on cattle ranchers’ use of land in Nevada, California and Utah. And the federal government has for decades permitted some destruction of tortoise habitats if they like the project, while cracking down on others as they see fit.

As the Powerline blog has well-documented, the BLM has enforced these rules in ways that favor projects endorsed by federal bureaucrats, such as solar projects, while being tough on the cattle ranchers.

But go back more than 20 years, and you’ll find a similar effort in the Clinton era to sacrifice 22,000 acres of tortoise habitat to Las Vegas area land developers, even as they set up restrictions on cattle ranchers including Cliven Bundy. As the Washington Post’s Tom Kenworthy documented in a March 21, 1993 article (retrieved via Nexis, so no link):

Three years ago, with tortoise populations crashing largely because of habitat destruction across its range in Nevada, California, Arizona and Utah, the federal government added the tortoise to its list of threatened species. The designation immediately imperiled tens of millions of dollars worth of construction projects in this development-crazed city.
But it also triggered a novel experiment in the peaceful resolution of endangered species conflicts that is similar, in many respects, to the process Babbitt would like to try nationwide to defuse explosive development-versus-environment fights.
Employing a rarely used mechanism approved by Congress a decade ago, environmentalists, developers, government officials, cattlemen, miners and off-road vehicle enthusiasts began negotiating a “habitat conservation plan.” The hope was it would satisfy both the needs of the tortoise and the Las Vegas area’s rapacious appetite for development.
The result was a plan to protect the tortoise by providing vast tracts of federal land as a refuge while sacrificing other tortoise areas to development....
By mid-1991, the Fish and Wildlife Service had approved a short-term conservation plan that allows for development of about 22,000 acres of tortoise habitat in and around Las Vegas in exchange for strict conservation measures on 400,000 acres of federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land south of the city. The plan is funded by development fees of between $ 250 and $ 550 an acre paid by builders. Almost $ 10 million has been raised so far.

Among the conservation measures required are the elimination of livestock grazing and strict limits on off-road vehicle use in the protected tortoise habitat. Two weeks ago, the managers of the plan completed the task of purchasing grazing privileges from cattle ranchers who formerly used BLM land....
Cattlemen are particularly irate, and have gone to court to prevent grazing restrictions on BLM land now outside the tortoise management area, where the federal agency has tried to keep cattle from competing with tortoises for forage for three months in the spring. Ranchers like Cliven Bundy, whose family homesteaded his ranch in 1877 and who accuses the government of a “land grab,” are digging in for a fight and say they will not willingly sell their grazing privileges to create another preserve.

The Post article was written more than 21 years ago, before Bundy had been assessed even one dime in fees, and validates his claim that his grievance is about the intrusiveness of federal rules aimed at protecting the desert tortoise, and how the government has used the rules as yet another tool to pick economic winners and losers.

It’s background and context that the networks could have provided as they picked up on the story of a rancher fighting the feds — but, sadly, was omitted from the broadcast coverage this past week.

— Rich Noyes is Research Director at the Media Research Center. Follow Rich Noyes on Twitter.