Former BLM director: Bundy is not a victim but BLM mishandled roundup

The BLM made the right decision to stand down after botching the roundup of Cliven Bundy's cattle, but the rancher is no victim, former state and national BLM boss Bob Abbey said.

Abbey, who was national Bureau of Land Management director for three years before leaving in 2012 and was Nevada director for eight years, was part of an aborted roundup in 2012 before he left.

Here's some of what he told me:

On Bundy: Cliven Bundy and his family members are not the victims here.  It is the American taxpayers who are the true victims.  Because Bundy is ignoring a decision issued by a federal judge, the BLM moved forward with its impoundment at a great deal of expense.  It was the right decision by the agency.  However, the heavy handed law enforcement tactics deployed by the land management agencies were not necessary and I believe is the primary reason Bundy has been able to gain media and public support and divert attention away from the real issues.

On the BLM’s decision to stand down: Given the current state of emotions there, I believe this is a good decision on the agency's part.  No trespass cow is worth anyone getting hurt and after reading about the situation in southern Nevada, I believe it is imperative for people to take a step back and assess the situation before taking further action on the ground.  

On the history: During my time as BLM State Director in Nevada (1997-2005), the BLM conducted impoundments of trespass cattle in Nye, Eureka, and Elko counties.  We were well aware of Cliven Bundy and knew that he too was grazing in trespass.  We had plans in place at that time to address his trespass but due to higher priorities, we delayed action.  If I remember correctly, the Bundy trespass was the last known cattle trespass in NV when I left the State Director's position in 2005.  I fully expected that an impoundment of his livestock would occur shortly after I departed.”

The process for impounding cattle: The Bundy trespass has been going on for a number of years.   Ninety nine percent of all ranchers operating on BLM managed public lands are complying with permit stipulations so grazing trespass is not a routine situation for the BLM.  Neither are impoundments.  An impoundment is an action of last resort whenever a person ignores all other attempts to resolve such an illegal activity.  The stars have to be in alignment however, before the BLM implements an impoundment.  While the delegated authority for impoundment rests with the local BLM office manager, such operations require close coordination among many parties.  This includes consultations with the Office of the Secretary of the Interior, U.S. Attorney, state government officials, and the local sheriff.  I have been involved in discussions where we had full agreement to proceed with impoundments and I have also been involved where there were honest disagreements on whether an impoundment was the appropriate administrative remedy.  

Since there is an element of risk with all impoundments, close coordination and communications are crucial when planning for operations.  This is the primary reason why the appropriate officials must be involved in the planning and implementation.  As the BLM Nevada State Director, I tried to make it a point to be at the site whenever we conducted a livestock impoundment.  Emotions will run high during the course of an impoundment and I wanted to have direct knowledge of who we were working with as well as be aware of the nature of the conversations taking place.   While law enforcement personnel were present to aid in the operations, their role was always one of support. “

The Bundy roundup: Admitting that I have little insight as to current BLM leadership thinking, it appears they chose to rely heavily on their law enforcement personnel to manage this impoundment operation, including having a Special Agent assigned as the Incident Commander.  I believe this to be a recipe for disaster and the heavy handed law enforcement presence at this impoundment was a mistake.  While it was prudent to have additional law enforcement personnel available close by if called upon given Bundy's threats, I believe it was an error to immediately deploy the large number of personnel the BLM and NPS had on sight and to close off the massive amount of public lands to conduct this impoundment.   

As has been written, the BLM had planned to conduct an impoundment of Bundy's trespass livestock in 2012 when I was still the BLM Director.  We had completed our plans and had begun deploying resources in the area in preparation for our operation.  I had direct conversations with senior officials in the Governor's office, with the Nevada Attorney General, the US Attorney in Nevada, Clark County Sheriff, and with local elected officials.  I had also agreed to be present at the site and directly engage in the operations if the circumstances warranted my involvement.  At the last moment, the decision was made to “not proceed" with an impoundment but to pursue legal actions that would likely result in an updated court order directing Bundy to remove his livestock from public lands.  The BLM was already in possession of a court order that had been issued earlier but some people believed it was important to have a fresh court order in place prior to any impoundment action.  The Secretary endorsed this option and thus, it was the decision that was implemented.   As a result, the Dept. of Justice was successful in gaining a "refreshed court order" and it was this order the BLM and the National Park Service personnel was enforcing with their impoundment action this month.