Federal land managers confirmed they released all 400 or so head of cattle rounded up on public land in southern Nevada from a rancher who has refused to recognize their authority.
The Bureau of Land Management took the action Saturday afternoon after hundreds of states’ rights protesters, including militia and tea party members, showed up at corrals outside Mesquite to demand the animals’ return to rancher Cliven Bundy.
The bureau issued a brief statement saying the cattle were released “due to escalating tensions.” Some protesters were armed with handguns and rifles at the corrals and at an earlier nearby rally.
Las Vegas police Lt. Dan Zehnder said the showdown was resolved with no injuries and no violence. Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie was able to negotiate a resolution after talking with Bundy, he said.
The release came only hours after Bureau of Land Management chief Neil Kornze announced an abrupt halt to the weeklong roundup because of safety concerns.
The fight between Bundy and the Bureau of Land Management widened into a debate about states’ rights and federal land-use policy. The bureau revoked Bundy’s grazing rights after he stopped paying grazing fees and disregarded federal court orders to remove his animals. The dispute that ultimately triggered the roundup dates to 1993, when the bureau cited concern for the federally protected tortoise in the region.
Kornze’s announcement came after Bundy repeatedly promised to “do whatever it takes” to protect his property and after a string of raucous confrontations between his family members and supporters and federal agents during the weeklong operation.
Bundy did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Republican Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval issued a statement praising the agency for its willingness to listen to the state’s concerns.
Nevada’s congressional delegation urged the protesters to be calm and to leave the area.
The 400 cows gathered during the roundup were short of the BLM’s goal of 900 cows that it says have been trespassing on U.S. land without required grazing permits for more than 20 years.
Bundy, 67, doesn’t recognize federal authority on land he insists belongs to Nevada. His Mormon family has operated a ranch since the 1870s near the small town of Bunkerville and the Utah and Arizona lines.
The crowd protesting Saturday recited the pledge of allegiance and many offered prayers. Others waved placards reading, “This land is your land,” and “We teach our children not to bully. How do we teach our government not to be big bullies?” according to the Review-Journal.
A federal judge in Las Vegas first ordered Bundy to remove his trespassing cattle in 1998. The bureau was implementing two federal court orders last year to remove Bundy’s cattle after making repeated efforts to resolve the matter outside of court, Kornze said, adding the rancher has not paid grazing fees in 20 years.
“This is a matter of fairness and equity, and we remain disappointed that Cliven Bundy continues to not comply with the same laws that 16,000 public-lands ranchers do every year,” Kornze said. “After 20 years and multiple court orders to remove the trespass cattle, Mr. Bundy owes the American taxpayers in excess of $1 million. The BLM will continue to work to resolve the matter administratively and judicially.”