Controversial rancher Cliven Bundy has filed a lawsuit asking a judge to order that Nevada’s federally owned lands are the property of the state and to force the state and county to defend Bundy’s land rights on his Bunkerville cattle ranch.
The lawsuit was filed Monday in Clark County District Court by Nevada attorney Craig Mueller, who recently lost a primary bid for state attorney general, and Larry Klayman, a prominent right-wing “activist” lawyer who founded the group Judicial Watch and gained notoriety from promoting the false claim that former President Barack Obama was born in a foreign country.
The suit echoes many of the claims of federal government overreach and public lands management that brought Bundy national notoriety during a 2014 standoff between the federal Bureau of Land Management and Bundy’s family and supporters over unpaid grazing fees the rancher had refused to pay since the early 1990s. The rancher and several co-defendants were charged in 2016 in connection with the standoff, but a federal judge dismissed the case in January.
Klayman, who unsuccessfully sought to represent Bundy in the 2016 case, also filed a civil complaint on the rancher’s behalf in January but it was dismissed five months later, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Klayman is also representing two of the former defendants from the standoff case in a lawsuit asking for $60 million from the federal prosecutors who took them to trial.
The complaint cites various historical precedents, including the Treaty of Guadalupe Hildago and quotes from James Madison during the first drafting of the U.S. Constitution, to claim that Nevada’s vast swaths of federal land (nearly 85 percent of the state’s landmass) should belong to and be governed by the state.
The idea of western states suing the federal government to recover federally-claimed land isn’t a new idea — most notably the Nevada “Sagebrush Rebellion” in the late 1970s — but most of the legal arguments cited by supporters of greater state ownership of public lands have either been rejected by courts or not yet tested.
The suit also claims that Obama’s decision to designate a 300,000 acre plot of land as the Gold Butte National Monument upon leaving office in December 2016 was “illegal.” The lawsuit claims the land, portions of which the Bundy’s use for cattle grazing, is owned by the state.
“If left unchallenged, President Obama's designation would preclude the Petitioner and The Bundy Ranch from continuing to function on the land, which it has used for at least 141 years, as well as disrupt the operations of The Bundy Ranch and destroy the Petitioner’s livelihood,” the lawsuit states.
It also requests that the court require the state and county governments to enforce Bundy’s claimed right to the land, and that he is “directly prejudiced and harmed” by their failure to do so.
Cliven Bundy’s son, Ryan Bundy, has echoed many similar claims on state sovereignty as part of his platform during his run for governor.
In a statement, environmental advocacy group Center for Biological Diversity's Nevada state Director Patrick Donnelly said the lawsuit was Bundy's attempt to turn the national monument area into his "personal fiefdom."
"That would be a disaster for wildlife like desert tortoises and for people who love visiting their national monument," he said in an email. "Bundy should abandon this ridiculous lawsuit and take his trespassing cattle off our protected public lands.”
Updated at 4:01 p.m. to include a statement from the Center for Biological Diversity.