Ranchers the Real Ecoterrorists

In 2008 at a Bureau of Land Management Oil and Gas lease auction Tim DeChristopher bid on 14 parcels of land (totaling 22,500 acres) for $1.8 million that he had no intention of buying. The FBI arrested him and charged him with a two-count felony indictment. DeChristopher was branded an “eco-terrorist.”  Even though the very leases he bid upon were later canceled because of their inadequate environmental review of impacts, DeChristopher nevertheless served 21 months in prison for his act of “terrorism”.

Of course DeChristopher’s motivation was to protect the land from violation by oil companies not his own financial gain. He should have been hailed as a hero. But in America people acting on principle to protect wildlands are often seen as a greater threat than those whose motivation is their personal financial gain.

A good example of the opposite federal government reaction is how the BLM and FBI responded to Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy. Bundy has repeatedly thumbed his nose at the federal government by refusing to pay minimal grazing fees for more than 20 years (he now owes more than a million dollars), and his failure to remove his cattle from federal property (our property). Instead of being arrested and taken off to jail as DeChristopher was, Bundy is still living free in Nevada, enjoying life as a celebrity.

As a reminder Bundy’s ranch was surrounded by gun-toting anti-government militants who threatened to kill federal agents if they attempted to remove Bundy’s cattle from our property.  I guess that sends a message that if you want to continue to thwart government action just surround yourself with militia.

One doesn’t have to instigate an armed insurrection to do damage to our patrimony and many acts of eco terrorism are not illegal, yet that doesn’t make them acceptable. Rancher Bill Hoppe, who lives outside of Gardiner Montana, began to run sheep on his ranch in retaliation for wolf reintroduction in Yellowstone which he has vocally opposed. Hoppe is President of the “Friends of the Northern Elk Herd” an anti-wolf organization that has resisted wolf recovery.

Hoppe openly admitted that his domestic animals might jeopardize nearby wild bighorns. As Hoppe is well aware domestic sheep can transmit pneumonia-like disease to their wild cousins causing many to die. Bighorn die-offs linked to domestic sheep have been documented across the West, including in Montana, Colorado, Wyoming, Washington and Idaho. Studies of sheep in captivity have proved transmission. Yet in a blatant disregard for the potential transfer of disease, Hoppe pastured his sheep immediately adjacent to a wild bighorn herd. Bighorns in the area later contracted pneumonia which most observers believe is a result of the presences of Hoppe’s sheep.

Is this an act of “eco terrorism?” It is in my book.

Hoppe is not alone in acting with malice towards public wildlife.  Rancher Frank Robbins of Wyoming who had his federal grazing leases canceled a several years ago after more than a dozen violations including overgrazing the public’s grazing lands as well as trespass grazing of other people’s federal leases. Robbins is threatening one of Wyoming’s largest wild bighorn sheep herds by purposely running domestic sheep on his property next to occupied wild sheep herds.

Thus Robbin’s threat to mix his domestic sheep in proximity to wild bighorns is analogous to giving small pox infected blankets to Native Americans as a way to reduce their resistance to American settlement and occupation.

Some forms of “eco terrorism” are more subtle and more wide-spread—and unfortunately legal. When a rancher’s livestock overgrazes the range, it harms many other creatures dependent on that grass. The grass going into the belly of someone’s cow, means there is that much less grass available for elk, bighorn or even desert tortoises which may depend on the same forage. With less grass, sage grouse may not be able to hide from predators. Yet no one will suffer FBI investigations, much less jail time for starving public wildlife.

Trampling of biocrust by the hooves of livestock damages soil, and permits the establishment of cheatgrass, an exotic alien weed. The spread of cheatgrass has serious consequences for entire ecosystems in part because the plant is highly flammable and increases the likelihood and occurrence of fire, burning out perennial plants like sagebrush.  Again destroying biocrusts and spreading cheatgrass while clearly an act of eco-terrorism is not against the law.

How about the draining of our rivers and streams for irrigated hay and alfalfa production? Countless streams around the West are regularly dewatered to grow water-loving plants like alfalfa for livestock forage. The removal of water from streams harms fisheries, but also shrinks the stream-side riparian zones that are important habitat for everything from songbirds to bald eagles. You can kill more songbirds and eagles by destroying the volume and acreage of riparian habitat than anyone with a gun may do, but while killing eagles and songbirds is illegal, destroying their habitat to grow cattle feed is not.

We kill thousands of predators from grizzly bears to wolves to coyotes to “protect” private livestock that are grazed on public lands. Even when these animals are not killed, they are harried and displaced by domestic livestock. Even so-called “predator friendly” livestock operations chase wolves and coyotes, harassing our wildlife to make it safe for their livestock. Is this not “terrorism”?

But do we hold ranchers accountable for these acts of eco terrorism? Hardly. Indeed, many politicians, media representatives, and others laud ranchers as the “true conservationists”.

These acts of “eco terriorism do far more damage to our collective heritage than bidding on oil and gas leases that were canceled. Yet while environmental activists like DeChristopher are arrested by Federal Agents and jailed, ranchers and other “eco terrorists” are pampered, and even allowed to continue destroying public property for their private gain. These different approaches to violations of the law demonstrates the blatant inequities in justice in our government’s willingness to protect the public’s natural patrimony.






  1. skyrim Avatar

    Thank you Mr. Wuerthner for your inspirational thoughts and efforts on this issue. This young man is a hero in every sense of the word. While he served time for what others have labeled a crime, history will remember him otherwise and his actions will inspire others of his, and later generations.

  2. Frank Krosnicki Avatar
    Frank Krosnicki

    As always, if one would follow the money, he/she would find that politicians service those who contribute the most money to keep them in office. Wrong becomes right if the money keeps coming in the front, or even the back doors.They care less about a balance in Nature that is essential to our planet than they do about their bank balances.

  3. Henry Blake Avatar
    Henry Blake

    Mr. Wuerthner,

    I find your writing very compelling, but there are some items that skirt some truth. The deeper realms of this broad subject of the earth’s ecology must require generalization, since it does, in fact, cover the whole earth and everybody and everything on it. Quite impossible for one to know all.

    We have several major players here. One, is the general human population – consumers of the environment. Two, is the various environmental interest groups – protectors of the environment. Three, is the business community – makers of commerce and industry. Four, is the various governments – conflicting entities of various shades and colors both within and without. Five, is various other interest groups who may not have a direct affiliation with the environmental concerns. Let me limit my comments to the last two.

    The government is a tool that some groups use to achieve their ends. Each group will skirt the truth in court in order to achieve that end. The government nor the courts nor their proclamations is the truth. The truth stands alone. So we must seek the truth. The environment is huge and not all is known, so in the process of seeking the truth we must not let pre-conceived notions of other groups alter our broad generalization of their reasons and actions. Now we move to Bundy Ranch. There were a number of entities, most with weapons, who were not officially active in the police force either locally or nationally. Some identified themselves as militia and some not. The term militia has a negative connotation to some but its true meaning to me is non-paid civilian volunteers protecting the freedom of their home and country. I think the true feelings towards militias will depend on whether they are on your side or not in your time-frame of need. Many of the armed citizens that went to Bundy Ranch were from the Oathkeepers organization. Most of Oathkeepers are former police and military. Why would former police and military stand off active federal BLM police? The answer is because they perceived the BLM had overstepped their use of force by employing military type sniper units, closing off public highways, and dis-allowing free speech. These were brave men as much as much as DeChristopher was. They recognized a wrong and did what they do best to correct it.

    The brave people of the world could work together if they can find a common and mutual truth. So where do you find truth outside of your area of expertise? It must be from a source that you trust. I would like to see information such as I see here put forth in a publically available forum on the internet, subject to public and peer review. The internet is huge, and with effort over time, all ecological data can be linked for viewing, not just handed out on an as-needed basis. We live in a large complex interconnected social system now and we must follow the truth in each specific instance, not any hopeful messenger of the generality of it all.

    For my part, an environmentalist and supporter of individual freedom, I hope I have clarified some of the information in the Bundy Ranch situation.


    1. skyrim Avatar

      HLB (please forgive my intrusion)
      An enlightening proposal of yours and not to be confrontational but;
      Perhaps we could begin with backing up your claim that the body of Oathkeepers membership is made up of the group you suggest. Beyond the guns.com web-site contention that is.
      I was a short time observer of the issue down in Bunkerville, and if any real percentage of these people were those you claim, I’d say we may need a militia to counter “this militia”. Ask the residents of Bunkerville and Mesquite who were adversely affected, what they thought of the siege.
      Also, I hope that you are not suggesting that by (the real) authorities closing roads and other areas to traffic was anything other than a safety matter. Protecting the public is not a matter of private property rights.

    2. rork Avatar

      So George has his personal definition of terrorist, independent of any laws, and you have yours for militia. Touché.

    3. David Skryja Avatar
      David Skryja

      The whole mess could be settled tomorrow if Bundy would just shut up and pay his bills.


  4. Kevin Jamison Avatar
    Kevin Jamison

    “I hope I have clarified”. Hardly. What the hell ARE you trying to say?
    Mr. Wuerthner very clearly stated the obvious. Ranchers and the political hacks who enable them are destroying the Public’s land with impunity. It’s only going to get worse.

  5. Kayla Avatar

    Now one thing that gets to me with all of these ranchers. They all try to be and sound like they are soooo free and independent type of people with hating the Federal Government and such. But on the other hand how how many of them have a hand out to the same federal government for a handout and desiring such cheap grazing fees on the taxpayers expense when it comes to the same federal lands. Many of them are simply bigtime hypocrites in my opinion.

  6. Gary Humbard Avatar
    Gary Humbard

    Certainly, The Clive Bundy’s, Bill Hoppes and Frank Robbin’s need to be held accountable, but to insinuate that ranchers are eco-terrorists is synonymous to anyone using electricity (hydroelectric dams blocking fish passage) or lumber products (removing habitat) and countless other uses that impacts the environment. After working 37 years for the BLM, it was my experience that ~95% of ranchers and timber sale purchasers abide by the laws (they don’t get the headlines) and those few that didn’t, got their operations suspended until corrections were made.

    Overall actions on public lands are held to the highest standard, as federal agencies must adhere to a multitude of laws (i.e. Clean Water Act, ESA, Clean Air Act) and are subject to protests and appeals.

    If overgrazing, destruction of riparian habitat or over draw down of water is occurring on public land, any member of the public has the right to provide specific information to the local federal office and insist that corrective actions are taken. I can assure you that the top local manager will take this information seriously as he or she does not want the issue(s) to go to the next highest level.

    Approximately 2% of the total livestock in the US is grazed on public land and the federal government is by far the largest landowner in the US. Considering the extremely small amount of livestock grazing in conjunction with the large amount of public land available for grazing, impacts are typically minimal. Could the BLM and FS improve the enforcement of grazing practices, absolutely and they are, by requiring the removal of livestock when conditions warrant. Again, the public has the right and power to provide specific information to the local office but to insinuate that ranchers in general are eco-terrorists is irresponsible.

    Here is the link to the Tim DeChristopher conviction. You be the judge.


    1. Ed Loosli Avatar
      Ed Loosli

      Gary Humbard:
      That’s quite a mouthful you are asking us to swallow by saying that basically, public land livestock grazing is benign and not a negative environmental action. In it’s own assessments, the BLM says that most of their grazing allotments are not up to their own standards.
      And, your contention that if a citizen has a complaint on some ranchers detrimental practices, all they have to do is present it to the local BLM office and it will be taken care of – is ridiculous. The only thing that seems to get the BLM supervisors attention, unfortunately, is a lawsuit. In the Frank Robbins case for example, not only have citizens complained that Frank Robbins is trespassing on BLM lands, but so has the State of Wyoming — And, what does the BLM answer?? “We do not take complaints from outsiders, we have to do the assessments ourselves, and since Frank Robbins will not let us through his private gates to access the BLM land in question, there is nothing we can do.”
      I am sure most of the BLM and Forest Service staff are wonderful hard working people, working on our behalf…However, the BLM and Forest Service supervisors are in general a sorry lot, who are answering to private special interests like ranching, oil/gas, mining and logging.

      1. Gary Humbard Avatar
        Gary Humbard

        Ed Loosli, the following link provides the latest assessments of grazing occurring on BLM managed land. As for Frank Robbins case, I’m fairly certain unless BLM has “exclusive easements” with Mr. Robbins, BLM does not have authority to enter onto his land (unless the agency condemns the ROW). As stated in the article the BLM is trying to workout a solution with Mr. Robbins, but it may take years.

        One potential solution would be for a CO such as The Conservation Fund to purchase the bighorn sheep core area from Mr. Robbins and remove the livestock forever.

        I stand by my assertion that the best way to correct a specific problem is to go to the local BLM or FS office and state your case. I’m not sure why you perceive that the majority of BLM supervisors are a “sorry lot” but in my experience the majority of BLM supervisors are excellent employees who would much rather come to an agreement to fix a problem then receive a protest and appeal. I’m not a BLM “Kool Aid drinker” abiding by the BLM line, just telling you of my vast experiences. If I did not strongly believe in the agency, I would not refute these claims.


    2. skyrim Avatar

      We’ve already judged the issue Gary and not being a wiki fan, I will stand on my prior knowledge of the event and issues. Once again you defend your cohorts. That would be honorable if it wasn’t blatantly wrong.

    3. Nancy Avatar

      “If overgrazing, destruction of riparian habitat or over draw down of water is occurring on public land, any member of the public has the right to provide specific information to the local federal office and insist that corrective actions are taken”

      Gary, would there be a need for organizations like WWP if local federal offices were taking corrective actions? Take a look at the before and after example on their website:


      I’ve seen a few locations like that. One of the worst, on public land (grazed for about 4 months in the summer) had a sign posted that said ” no motorized vehicles allowed. Sensitive riparian habitat” it was next to a small river.

      As for as far as the eye could see (late summer) the grasses had been chewed down to dirt, the willows were rounded out and the river bank was packed down by cattle coming and going for water.

      I’ve often wondered if “assessments” on this lands (by federal agencies charged with their care) are done in the spring BEFORE cattle are allowed on?

      Most high country lands, come spring, look rejuvenated (nature fighting back 🙂 but then the competition begins between public lands grazing of cattle and wildlife – ungulates migrating back into these areas or the ground nesting birds, fish and amphibians trying to hang on while under assault from outside influences.

  7. Kathleen Avatar

    In today’s Missoulian, an article about new MT Senate president Debby Barrett. Excerpt:

    “Living on the ranch, we use public lands. …For each species, for each issue, you have to go and defend your grazing rights. My world revolves around livestock, water issues, private property rights, burgeoning wildlife populations and increasing large predators… I represent more cattle than people in my district.”

    Later in the article, the last Dem to challenge her says, “I knew I wasn’t going to win…I ran to raise issues. I didn’t want her position to be the only one out there. I felt some of her views needed to be countered.” He said Barrett talked about the need to eradicate wolves…”


    1. Nancy Avatar

      Did you see this article about Barrett: Its just below the new dress code 🙂

      “So achieving the milestone is a victory for Barrett, yes. But it is not anything close to a victory for women because she is a backward, angry conservative and the antithesis of a feminist”


      1. Kathleen Avatar

        Hi Nancy– yes, I had seen that post tho I’m not a regular reader at that blog. Here’s another one to watch: http://votesmart.org/candidate/149266/theresa-manzella#.VKwAXSiw620

        A couple years ago, she put on a seminar titled “The Human Cost of the Animal Rights Movement.” She’s rabidly pro-horse slaughter and anti-wolf and maintains that animals are nothing more than property and otherwise at our disposal (with Biblical justification).

        “The Animal Rights Movement: A beast that needs to be slain” (about her seminar, which I attended)- http://www.othernationsjustice.org/?p=4563

        “Horse Slaughter: What would Jesus do?”

  8. Dominique Osh Avatar
    Dominique Osh

    Well said, Excellent points!

  9. Larry Avatar

    As I write this I have hat in hand and bowed head. Sometime back I strongly supported the BLM-LE and the U.S. Attorney’s office in the Bundy matter. I was so sure that the roof would come down on Bundy right after the elections. Well…. I don’t know what to say. The lack of action against Bundy is shameful I think we (citizens) are due an explanation from one of the responsible offices as to reasons action for justice is seemingly stopped with no hint of resuming. I know AUSA’s can be patronizing and are polished in techniques for delaying action, but 20 YEARS and all the massive show at the Bundy ranch and just to let it all evaporate??? Some AUSA was confident enough to go before a federal court and plea for court authority and got it! And now nothing? This smells like prosecutorial politico. If the saying is true, “They can indict a ham sandwich”, why can’t we get a roast beef indictment? I want 20 years of answers and a million dollars. Congress like hearings, how about a Bundy hearing.

  10. LNorman Avatar

    And then there’s those pesky GAO reports that go back decades on the livestock damage to Public Lands and riparian zones. Blm keeps renewing leases, decade after decade.

  11. Joanne Favazza Avatar
    Joanne Favazza

    Amen, George!

    I’ve always wondered why those of us who support and defend wildlife and wild places are labeled as “eco-terrorists,” while those who destroy them are seen as law-abiding citizens–even “conservationists.”

    Indeed, as writer and environmental activist Derrick Jensen has pointed out, if aliens landed on the planet and began poisoning the air, water, and soil, destroying wildlife, wild places, and human health, we’d be outraged. Yet the livestock, logging, mining, and energy industries do this everyday as they have for decades, and it’s all perfectly acceptable in the eyes of politicians and those who feel entitled to destroy.

    For a disturbing look at how environmental and animal rights activists are being convicted and imprisoned as “domestic terrorists,” I highly recommend the book “Green Is The New Red” by Will Potter. It’s a real eye-opener, and shows just how much our civil liberties in defense of wildlife and wild places are being eroded by corporate interests and their political allies.

  12. Bonnie Mcgrath Avatar
    Bonnie Mcgrath

    I do not live in the western portion of this country, but I do follow the plight of the wild horse during recent years, and it sickens me that the “BLM” bows down to ranchers and their grazing needs on free range at the expense of the wild horses like they are a plague. The plague is the cattle, if they weren’t so destructive the ranchers would not be looking for more and more grazing land. It is unfortunate the wolves, wild horses and big horns Mr Humbard mentions doesn’t have funds to hire “the militia” to protect them, like the ranchers or funds to contribute to political campaigns for use later. The devastation and eventual extinction of the wild horses will be at the hands of the ranchers and their puppet the BLM. The old story that they are starving doesn’t work anymore.

    1. Gary Humbard Avatar
      Gary Humbard

      Bonnie, just curious where do you get the facts that the BLM bows down to ranchers and their grazing needs, cattle are the plague, horses will eventually become extinct and that starving doesn’t work anymore?

      My comments are in general as there are always the exceptions (Clive Bundys). The BLM allows ranchers to graze a certain number of livestock on an allotment each year(usually release them in the spring and remove them in late summer). BLM range technicians monitor the permittee’s making sure grazing standards are met (i.e. grass cover, riparian area protection). If at anytime the conditions are not being met, the livestock come off.

      Conversely, due to lawsuits brought by “wild horse advocates” and budget constraints, the BLM is very limited to how many wild horses can be removed from the range (sanctuaries, adopted). In addition, wild horses have no real predators and they reproduce at a ~20% annual rate, consequently there are ~50,000 wild horses in the west (mainly Nevada). Due to all of the above, there are many older wild horses dying a cruel death each year (unless you have knowledge otherwise).

      Wild Horse Annie was probably the most important wild horse advocate to ever live, and before her death, she was not in favor of allowing so many horses to suffer and die a cruel death. Even without a single livestock on the range wild horses need to be managed as there is only so much food and water and no predators to manage them. Come out to Nevada and see for yourself.

  13. Tricia Fidone Avatar

    This saddens and sickens me, I thought as late as yesterday, that anyone could lease a chunk of land from the
    BLM, what gives here??????

  14. Alan Gregory Avatar
    Alan Gregory

    Every time I go for a long walk down the dirt-gravel road that cuts across a swath of the Great Basin Desert near my home in Mountain Home, ID, I’m reminded of the great negative impact livestock grazing has on the land. Ecologically, there is no difference between the public land and private land in the region.

  15. Ed Loosli Avatar
    Ed Loosli

    Gary Humbard:
    For the real take on wild-horse/BLM statistics please see this article – It puts it all in context of how wild-horses are getting shut our of their lawfully designated BLM lands because the cattle/sheep industry is in bed with the BLM.


    “155 million acres of western rangeland that the BLM oversees for public grazing, 83 percent has no wild horses on it at all—just privately owned cattle and sheep. The remaining 17 percent is designated as wild horse habitat, but horses share it, yet again, with privately owned livestock, which are allocated 77 percent of the forage there, according to Zachary Reichold, BLM senior wild horse and burro specialist.”

  16. Reverend Jane Eagle Avatar
    Reverend Jane Eagle

    Everything I see is an all-out war against the earth and all who live upon her. Is simple greed the only motivator, or is there a deeper evil at work?


George Wuerthner is an ecologist and writer who has published 38 books on various topics related to environmental and natural history. He has visited over 400 designated wilderness areas and over 200 national park units.

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George Wuerthner