Even With Bundy Behind Bars, 'Range War' Lives On For Some Ranchers

May 25, 2016
Originally published on May 26, 2016 7:00 am

Stanton Gleave hardly fits the stereotype of a modest, keep-to-himself Western rancher.

Standing in a collection of muddy pens taking a break from shearing sheep near his home in tiny Kingston, Utah, Gleave gives an earful about his frustrations with the Bureau of Land Management and environmental groups.

"That's who we're actually fighting with," says Gleave. "They've indoctrinated and got into this BLM and Forest Service 'til a lot of 'em are right up in the head positions now."

Gleave has spent his whole life raising sheep and cattle. His hands are swollen from years of ranch work. He leans on a wooden cane, which he also uses to prod the lambs up a ramp into a shearing shed.

Gleave wants to talk about where these sheep spend most of their days, grazing on the slopes of Mount Dutton.

In recent years, federal grazing allotments have been reduced on federal public land there, and Gleave says it has been hitting his pocketbook.

"That's what this thing's about, range rights," he says. "Since the 1800s our families have run livestock here."

Lease Versus Own

Gleave is like your typical Western rancher in one important way: He doesn't own much land himself. There's no room to run livestock in this sliver of a valley. So he leases huge tracts of federal land that surround his place — namely Mount Dutton.

This was an arrangement that for the most part worked out pretty well for generations of ranching families like his. The federal government was there to help, maintaining and building roads so ranchers could access their stock. It helped with irrigation projects, building fences.

"Look at this little valley right here," Gleave says, gesturing toward a highway and a smattering of small homes and pastures behind him. "When I was a kid, there was, let's see, one, two, three, four gas stations in it, and three cafes, a furniture store, a car dealership."

That was before the timber mills closed, and most of the mines too. Then President Clinton designated the massive Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. And that forced the BLM to focus a lot more on the environment and recreation, not just cows.

"If you read the Constitution, that's the last thing our Founding Fathers wanted was for a federal government to be out here in our business," Gleave says. "They're supposed to be out there in Washington protecting that border down there."

It's true the amount of public land available for grazing has been cut a lot since the 1980s, even more since Gleave was a kid in the 1950s.

"What would you do if you was losing everything you got, would you stand and fight or would you roll over and play dead?" he asks.

This is the kind of talk that's typical of a small, tight-knit group of ranchers mainly clustered in the remote Southwest. Most are conservative and refer to themselves as devout Mormons. They believe the Constitution doesn't allow for the federal government to control Western land.

The government hoped the movement's self-described "range war" would peter out after the arrests of rancher Cliven Bundy and his sons for their role in recent armed standoffs in Bunkerville, Nev., in 2014 and at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon earlier this year.

It hasn't. The Bundys are facing a litany of federal felony charges that include conspiracy and assault on a federal office.

There is also renewed concern among federal officials that the shooting death of one of the Oregon militants, LaVoy Finicum, could fuel more potentially violent standoffs down the road.

Finicum's widow, Jeanette, has likened it to an "assassination" and is planning to sue, even as she could face jail time herself.

"He stood for freedom," she says.

The Anti-Federal-Lands Movement

Jeanette Finicum is now alone at the couple's ranch near Colorado City, Ariz.; about a three-hour drive south from her friend Stanton Gleave's place.

She wears a black shirt with the couple's cattle brand printed on it, LV, for LaVoy. Inside the family's modest brick ranch house, his cowboy hats are still hanging on the stair rail, his chaps by their bed, where he left them before he drove to Oregon.

Finicum has been thrust to the forefront of the anti-federal-lands movement and there's pressure on her to keep taking a stand against the government and continue defying federal grazing rules, as her husband had.

"They may have killed LaVoy's voice," she says, choking back tears, "but they created 12 more voices in our 11 children and myself, and we're going to continue with his message going forward."

But she hasn't decided what she'll do yet with the cows, whether to keep defying federal orders, or sell them and get out of the business altogether.

"I've already been told by many different people who've spoken with other officials that I'd better watch myself," she says.

In the meantime, her family is starting its spring branding and the cows continue to graze illegally on federal land near here.

Federal authorities are not saying whether they'll make more arrests. Yet Finicum knows the choice of whether she stays in ranching may not be hers to make.

"I stand to end up just like everyone else, arrested, property taken," she says.

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After the FBI arrested militants who had occupied a wildlife refuge in Oregon earlier this year, the government hoped the movement would die down. Many of the leaders went to jail. The feds promised to continue the crackdown. But the movement didn't die down. Things are still tense between the government and a small, dedicated group of ranchers in the West over grazing rights on federal. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports from southern Utah.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Talking with Stanton Gleave is like dipping into a long-running commentary about the state of the country.

STANTON GLEAVE: You know that bunch of Beatles that come ashore in the '60s - that's probably before your day, wasn't it? - and had that long hair on them?

SIEGLER: He's hardly a modest keep-to-himself rancher.

GLEAVE: That's the same bunch of buggers who spit on our people coming out of Vietnam - that - they're the hippies. They're - what they've turned into is that bunch of environmentalist. They don't want to work. They don't believe in God. They'd like to take every right we got.

SIEGLER: Gleave has spent his whole life raising sheep and cattle. His hands are swollen from years of ranch work. It's shearing season in this collection of muddy pens. He leans on a wooden cane which he also uses to prod the lambs up a ramp into a shearing shed.

Gleave wants to talk about where these sheep spend most of their days, though, grazing above us on the slopes of Mount Dutton.

GLEAVE: That's what we're - this thing's about - range rights. You see, since the 1800s, our family's run livestock this same way.

SIEGLER: Gleave says environmentalists are winning a battle to remove all livestock from Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service in the West.

GLEAVE: That's who we're actually fighting with. They've indoctrinated and got into this BLM and Forest Service. A lot of them are right in the head positions now.

SIEGLER: So you need to know that Stanton Gleave is like your typical Western rancher in one important way. He doesn't own much land himself. There's no room to run livestock in this tiny sliver of a valley, so he leases huge tracts of federal land that surround his place.

This was an arrangement that worked out pretty well for ranching families like his for generations, and the federal government was there to help - maintaining and building roads so ranchers could access their stock and to help with irrigation projects, building fences.

GLEAVE: Look at this little valley right here. When I was a kid, there was - let's see - one, two, three, four gas stations in it, two cafes, three cafes, a furniture store, a car dealership.

SIEGLER: That was before the timber mills closed - most of the mines, too. Then came President Clinton designating the massive Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, and that forced the BLM to focus a lot more on the environment, recreation, not just cows. The amount of public land available for grazing has been cut a lot - like, more than half since Gleave was a kid.

GLEAVE: What would you do if you're losing everything you've got? Would you stand and fight, or would you roll over and play dead, I guess? And that's what (laughter)...

SIEGLER: This is the kind of talk that's typical from a small, tightknit group of ranchers mainly clustered here in the remote Southwest. They believe the Constitution doesn't allow for the federal government to control Western land. Most are conservative, self-described devout Mormons who are allies with Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy.

The Bundy patriarch and several of his sons are now in jail, facing a litany of felony charges, including conspiracy and assault on federal officers for leading armed standoffs in Nevada in 2014 and earlier this year at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon.

The government is concerned about the potential for more conflicts mainly because of the death of one of this movement's leaders, LaVoy Finicum, in Oregon. This eyewitness video shows Finicum in a tense standoff with the FBI and Oregon State Troopers at a roadblock in January.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LAVOY FINICUM: You understand? I'm going to go meet the sheriff. You back down, or you kill me now. Go ahead. Put the bullet through me.

SIEGLER: And moments later, they did. LaVoy Finicum's widow has called this an assassination. Some people think her husband was a martyr. She's planning to sue and could face jail time herself. She's now the focus for supporters of this movement.

To get to the Finicum's ranch, I drove three hours across the Utah state line into the high desert of Arizona. You know you're close when you pass through the Kaibab Indian Reservation. And just before the sign marking the entrance to the polygamist colony Colorado City, you turn right onto a rutted out, red clay dirt road.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORN)

SIEGLER: Here is a modest brick ranch house with a long porch.

JEANETTE FINICUM: This is the family ranch here, his father's ranch.

SIEGLER: Jeanette Finicum is alone, still grieving the loss of her husband four months ago.

FINICUM: What did he stand for? He standed for the Constitution in its original intent. He stood for freedom and...

SIEGLER: She's wearing a black shirt with the couple's cattle brand printing on it - LV for LaVoy. Inside the house, his cowboy hats are still hanging on the rail, his chaps by their bed where he left them before he drove to Oregon.

FINICUM: Everything around here is - reflects my husband - everything. So he had every intention on being home.

SIEGLER: Now Jeanette is the one making the decisions about whether she'll continue defying the federal government like her husband did. He had stopped paying his grazing leases.

FINICUM: You have to look at the bigger picture (laughter) and the liberties that are being encroached upon. And I think that that's why he took a stand.

SIEGLER: She hasn't decided what she'll do yet.

FINICUM: I've already been told and been told by many different people who have spoken with other officials that I better watch myself.

SIEGLER: The family is starting their spring branding in the meantime, and the cows - they continue to graze illegally on federal land near here. Finicum knows the choice of whether she stays in ranching may not be hers to make.

FINICUM: Yeah. I stand to end up just like everyone else.

SIEGLER: Meaning what? (Inaudible).

FINICUM: Arrested, property taken...

SIEGLER: For now, federal authorities are not saying whether they'll make any more arrests, but it's clear that tensions that led to the Oregon standoff still run deep. Kirk Siegler, NPR News in southern Utah. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.