All aboard Uncle Sam’s crazy train

The other award I won over the weekend at the Canadian Farm Writers’ Federation annual convention in Charlottetown was published in Alberta Beef Magazine in May, 2014. I was awarded Gold in the category of Press Column – The Frank Jacobs Award.


All aboard Uncle Sam’s crazy train

Cliven Bundy sounds like a name belonging to the star of some backwoods horror flick, but in fact, the name belongs to a very real man starring in a very scary reality show.

Bundy, a cattle rancher in Nevada, managed to mobilize some of America’s most rabid militia groups after the federal government started seizing his cattle. Many of the extremists screamed his cattle were being rounded up because the government was protecting the desert tortoise, but the truth is much more complex than that. Sadly, extremists don’t usually have much appetite for truth or context.

Bundy had been grazing cattle in areas referred to as Gold Butte and Bunkerville allotment for many years. He did own some deeded land, but relied on lease land for most of his grass, which is administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). In 1993, some of the regulations changed, which stopped grazing on Bunkerville, and reduced grazing at Gold Butte. In part, the decision was made because of the desert tortoise, but the sensitive area overall was overgrazed and the forage mismanaged.

Bunker claimed the regulation changes would force him to reduce his herd by 90 per cent, down to 150 head. He stopped paying his grazing fees for Gold Butte, and did not remove his cattle from Bunkerville. His case went to court numerous times, and each and each time he was defeated. He tried to argue he was grandfathered grazing rights, although such a thing doesn’t exist in his case. He asserted that federal lands really aren’t federal, and belong to the state of Nevada. There were appeals and new cases. The result was always the same – Bundy’s cattle were trespassing, and he wasn’t paying fees for the cattle grazing Gold Butte. In 1998 he was ordered to remove all of his cattle from all of the BLM lands and to pay up. He didn’t.

Fast forward to April of 2014 – a full 20 years since Bundy paid for any grazing rights – and an aerial survey shows he’s running about 900 head of cattle. After threatening to for 15 years, the BLM took action, impounding 400 head. And that’s when the proverbial cowpie hit the fan.

Bundy started sending letters with the catchy header, “Range War Emergency Notice and Demand for Protection” to all levels of government and solicited support from various extremist groups. A clever man, he used terms associated with the sovereign citizen movement to spur the militias into action. Much of his support base came from groups that even the Tea Party considers too hardcore… and that’s like the Pope refusing to visit a city because it has too many Catholics.

Along with presumably more balanced protestors, these militias showed up with all manner of guns – handguns, semi-automatics – you name it. In response the BLM sent law enforcement agents to help control the scene.

That’s when it started to get really crazy. Angry “sovereign citizens” threatened to disarm federal bureaucrats, and demanded the cattle be released. Protesting marksmen with sniper rifles got into position, aiming their weapons at law enforcement officers and BLM employees charged with seizing the cattle. Citizen soldiers marched along the highway, at times stopping traffic and approaching private vehicles with their loaded weapons.

By my estimation, this already tips the crazy scales and ventures very far into terror territory, but we’re not done yet. The protestors began planning their war strategy, deciding to place the women on the front line. Yes. On purpose. So they would get shot first. “If they were going to start killing people, I’m sorry, but to show the world how ruthless these people are, the women needed to be the first ones shot,” said former Nevada Sheriff Richard Mack, who supported the protest.

I have absolutely no doubt that had a shot been fired, it would have been by the crazy side first. And I don’t know what’s scarier – that a husband and father would be so captivated by extremist dogma that he would sacrifice his family, or that this husband and father was also a sheriff. After that, the BLM backed down. They released Bundy’s cattle in order to avoid bloodshed.

I can’t say whether the decision made back in 1993 to reduce grazing in the area was fair or right. I do know how sensitive that grass is – I’ve spent a lot of time in America’s Southwest – most of it after I learned about the cattle business and grass management. I also know that our ranching industry is reputed to be light years ahead of the U.S. when it comes to land stewardship, and holistic and rotational grazing. That culture doesn’t seem to be as well established in the U.S., and some of the ground I’ve seen down there certainly supports that theory.

I’ve seen a few people on my Facebook compare the Bundy standoff to the Sage-Grouse emergency protection order (EPO) issued earlier this year, but it isn’t remotely the same. For one thing, the recovery plan and almost every bit of research I have read regarding the Sage-Grouse says that light-to-moderate grazing is good for the species. Admittedly, I’m just now starting to dig into this issue, but it seems to me that the EPO is grandfathering ranching interests, as well as protecting them into the future – provided the order doesn’t change.

Considering that stocking density and methodology on our Sage-Grouse grounds haven’t changed significantly since the species started rapidly declining in the late 80s, ranching doesn’t seem like the smoking gun here. West Nile Virus and industrial development – to my interpretation anyway – seem the two culprits having the most impact. Increased predation – I can see that too. There’s been a predator/prey imbalance in this region for some time. The plains grizzly were killed out, and there are no resident wolf packs. Coyotes do a marvelous job of filling in the footprints of larger predators – and that’s not always a good thing. Pronghorn numbers are down considerably, although I don’t know how that affects the coyotes. There are more cougars traveling through the area, and we certainly know the Cypress Hills is flush with them right now. I don’t know how many may be resident outside of the Hills, but certainly, the coulees and waterways are part of the wildlife corridor the cougars (and other species) will use.

I get that we want to protect the Sage-Grouse – other than the ranchers and other folks lucky enough to live in that shortgrass prairie, no one loves it more than I do. I’d move there in a heartbeat if I could, and I adore all the wildlife that lives on the prairie… but you know what? We should have acted 15 years ago when we started noticing the decline was substantial. Perhaps had we mitigated some of the concerns then, we wouldn’t be faced with what seems an almost ludicrously heavy-handed EPO now. Still, when I read it, ranching appears to be protected and grandfathered throughout the document.

It’s not like I haven’t seen reckless decisions made by our own federal government – dismantling the PFRA a prime example – but Bundy went through the courts. Many times over. And he made absolutely zero effort to pay his grazing fees for the cattle he was permitted to graze. Nada. Zilch. The dude is a deadweight that happens to have a little charisma and the ability to appeal to extremists. He exploited the BLM’s rule changes in the ‘90s as justification to become a criminal. I just can’t see the producers I know in Saskatchewan and Alberta leveraging the Sage-Grouse EPO to shirk their responsibilities.

The BLM says they are still going to go after Bundy administratively – whatever that means. And really, the government had no choice. Righter-wing politicians and media in the U.S. were starting to compare the protests and cattle seizure to Tiananmen Square. That in itself is baffling and upsetting. The BLM was enforcing several court orders, and had delayed doing so for years. They did not prohibit the protests, nor were they the first ones to bring weapons to the party. And let’s not forget there were armed men with sniper rifles aimed at BLM heads. At Tiananmen Square, the citizens were armed with nothing but their voices, and they were shot down like dogs in the street for using them. That is a far cry from what went down at the Bundy Standoff.

Bundy continues to get away with his illegal activity. How nice that through the worst years of the business he was able to hitch a free ride for his cattle on the backs of the other thousands of ranchers who paid their grazing fees.

The Sage-Grouse issue is a worthy one for us as an industry to look at and examine carefully, and there were some disturbing precedent-setting actions taken by the government.  But the Bundy standoff is a completely different animal, and it’s important that we address our own challenges in our own country without that fanatical edge which has become so synonymous with America as of late. Our ranching lobby is powerful, but if we give ourselves over to this militia mentality madness, we’ll lose both our voice and our credibility – and those are the two most valuable industry assets we have.

Sadly, the whole Bundy debacle has caused much of the U.S. and a lot of Canada to view Bundy’s cause as a case of cowboys and government – and the cowboy is getting a black eye on account of it. Bundy and his gun-toting, hat-wearing bandits are the furthest thing from the kind of cowboys I know. Real ranchers don’t line up their families to be shot. They do what’s right – and that means standing up for what’s right without committing a wrong. I have a lot of names for Bundy and his ilk, but “cowboy” isn’t one of them.

How the cookie crumbles

I was at Grasslands National Park, and in Val Marie last week for research for a book I’ve been contracted to write. Technically, it was a work trip, but I love that part of Saskatchewan, and it was a bittersweet treat to return to it.

Bittersweet because every single time I come back to Saskatchewan, it hurts because I miss living there so, so much. But it was especially difficult to return to Val Marie because there is so much uncertainty in the future. I don’t think it’s possible to overstate how losing the PFRA pasture and irrigation projects are going to affect the community.

I was there to research how the park has affected the community, the economic impact of the park, a look at how grazing is being managed inside and outside the park boundaries, and to gain a perspective on the whole issue from a cattle producer’s point of view. I stopped by the RM office to study a map of the area and the park, and I was stunned to see that the PFRA pasture land is an area much larger than Grasslands National Park. It wasn’t until that second that I fully understood the severity of what’s happening to Val Marie, and by extension, the entire Southwest.

Whether intentional or merely the inevitable result of a series of catastrophic policy decisions, the area is being depopulated. Piece by piece, all the pillars of sustainability are being removed. Sure, the federal government may be motivated by their economic ideology, but it’s the people who are going to suffer for it. Even the staunchest libertarians will admit that maybe it wasn’t the government’s place so many decades ago to create the framework and infrastructure for the PFRA projects, but now that’s it’s here, ripping it away from the people who have built generations of lives around it is next to criminal.

When the West was first explored, the Palliser Expedition found that the Palliser Triangle would be difficult to homestead, and would be largely too dry for crop farming. Nonetheless, the federal government pushed people west to settle and break the land, with devastating consequences. In part, this is why the PFRA was established – not to save the land from the people who brutalized it, but to save it from the government who raped it with flawed policy to begin with. Landowners voluntarily gave back deeded land to form some of that pasture, and co-operative communities created a new culture around those community pastures. Having access to grass at the PFRA determined how many head of cattle a rancher could run on his operation. It affected how much lease land he obtained, and how much grass he kept deeded.

Likewise, the irrigation projects meant cattle would have winter feed, and entire operations were built upon access to irrigated land. Those with irrigated land needed less land overall, which freed up land for operations that needed more.
At the time, it was important to the federal government that the rural areas succeed. It was important to keep the land occupied, and sovereign. It was important for food security, and to keep many out of the ranks of poverty. It was important, because it meant progress. When the PFRA was established, it was viewed as an investment not just into Maple Creek, or Consul or Val Marie, but in the prairies, in the rural way of life, for the benefit of the entire nation. It was important in the same way that building roads and bridges are important – it was infrastructure that was a basic necessity for growth, prosperity and progress. It was important because it was the right thing to do.

Now these communities are expected to take over these lands and these irrigation projects so that they are user managed, operated and funded. But there are fewer users than ever – economics have changed – and producers were told in the ‘80s to get big or get out – and the investment into the PFRA seems like a lot to benefit a few.

But that’s a very skewed view of the situation and frankly, a very Kindergarten one at that. Intellectually, it holds no water. The PFRA employs people, and those people have families that attend area schools, and purchase goods and services locally. The pasture land and irrigation has helped provide a stability that in turn makes the entire region stronger. The environmental goods and services the pastures provide are well-documented, and contribute greatly to Canada’s carbon storage capacity. All of these communities help keep our border secure and sovereign and act as a buffer between Canada and the U.S. – these are the communities in which our customs officers live. There is an enormous amount of ranching and farming in the area and these efforts by a handful of people help to sustain our shortline railways, our elevators, and our service communities like Swift Current, Medicine Hat, Shaunavon and Maple Creek. Everybody benefits from the PFRA projects, and to suddenly expect a handful of people to completely finance them is akin to asking the village of Piapot to take over all costs associated with the TransCanada Highway between Maple Creek and Tompkins. It’s utterly reprehensible, and this attack on rural Saskatchewan cannot be tolerated and make no mistake – dismantling the PFRA is precisely what this is – an attack.

The issue is especially barbed for the people who live near Grasslands Park. They are told the PFRA projects are an expensive endeavour which benefits only a few, but they live next door to a near-empty national park. I stayed at the newly-built Frenchman Valley Campground, which was opened in 2012 and came with a $1.5 million price tag. On Canada Day, I was the only one there. In the mid-afternoon heat, a white and green minivan pulled up, and out hopped three Parks Canada employees. Smiling, they came over to me, and wished me a happy Canada Day, handing me a little paper flag and a cookie before they drove away, leaving me alone in the empty campground.

Meanwhile, back in Val Marie, residents are frightened and anxious. Through haying, seeding and harvest, their committees find the time to meet in the evenings to try and figure out some way they can save their PFRAs, but the numbers aren’t adding up. They can’t simply afford to run them on their own, and time is running out. But Prime Minister Harper and Agriculture Gerry Ritz don’t care, because in their heads, taxpayers shouldn’t be on the hook to subsidize programs which benefit so few. Obviously, they haven’t had the pleasure of staying at an empty 1.5 million dollar campground.

It’s unfathomable and unforgivable that the communities of the Southwest are going to be sacrificed on the altar of this administration’s warped version of Conservative ideology. But in Mr. Harper’s world, when so few live in such a large federal riding, that’s just how the cookie crumbles.