When federal agents tried to round up Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy's cattle in 2014, they were met by armed protesters and ultimately backed off. Now two years later, those cattle are still roaming the Nevada desert and conservationists are demanding the government round up the livestock in a mass seizure.
This week, a coalition of conservation groups sent a letter to the Bureau of Land Management asking them to remove the cattle jailed rancher's cattle. The letter — which was signed by the Center for Biological Diversity, WildEarth Guardians, and other groups — describes the cattle as "trespass livestock" and argues they are damaging tortoise habitat.
"Livestock grazing has direct and indirect adverse impacts on tortoise populations," the letter states, "ranging from crushing individuals and trampling dens to altering habitat in ways that reduce forage availability and nutrition for animals."
Representatives for the Bureau of Land Management did not immediately respond to a BuzzFeed News request for comment or reaction to the conservationists' letter.
Rob Mrowka, a scientist with the Center for Biological diversity, said the Bundy cattle are essentially "feral," roaming at will over hundreds of thousands of acres — including far outside the range where long ago they were permitted. (Bundy stopped paying his grazing fees in 1993, meaning the cattle were technically trespassing anywhere on public land after that point.)
The area occupied by the cattle is also one of the driest in the U.S., Mrowka said, and the cattle end up out-competing the tortoise for limited food.
"The problem is that the cattle are out there constantly and get first dibs," Mrowka added.
Bundy is currently behind bars awaiting trial after being arrested in February at Portland airport on charges stemming from his role in the tense 2014 standoff with federal officials near his Nevada ranch.
Cliven Bundy's lawyer Joel Hansen told BuzzFeed News that there are still cattle on the range, and that ranching operations are being run by Bundy's wife and other women in the family while the rancher awaits trial.
Hansen disagreed that cattle harm tortoise habitat.
"The environmentalists say that it's bad for the tortoise if you have cattle on the land, that's false," Hansen said. "The tortoises do better with the cattle on the land because they like to make a meal out of the cow pies. It's all just environmental hype and it's all for the purpose of getting Mr. Bundy out of there."
It's not clear exactly how big Bundy's herd is, but it likely numbers in the hundreds. Hansen said the family in the past estimated that it had about 500 head, minus those that he said were killed in the standoff. Mrowka said that based on past estimates and conversations with Cliven's wife, Carol, there could be between 300 and 500 head.
However, both Mrowka and Greg Dyson, a program director WildEarth Guardians, said that the cattle themselves are suffering from lack of food.
"It's just cruel and unusual punishment," Dyson told BuzzFeed News. "They're literally eating themselves out of house and home."
Mrowka provided images that he said were taken in the Gold Butte area, where Bundy's cattle graze.
Mrowka said that there is "intrinsic value" in preserving the habitat of the tortoise, saying the animal is "part of our heritage."
"It's part of the creation," he added.
Dyson pointed to a larger movement, saying that the Bundy family — which includes the leaders of the armed Oregon standoff earlier this year — are part of a movement "among some in the ranching community to take away our private lands."
"We can't let a few people take over our public lands, and that's what they want to do," he said. "To me it's more about that than the tortoise. Although I do care about the tortoise."