Images of a forced cattle roundup on a rural Nevada range sent ripples through the West on Friday, prompting elected officials in several states to weigh in, militia members to mobilize and federal land managers to reshape elements of the operation.
Bureau of Land Management officials dismantled designated protest areas Thursday and Nevada’s governor urged calm as the fight over rancher Cliven Bundy’s cattle widened into a debate about states’ rights and federal land-use policy.
The dispute that triggered the roundup dates to 1993, when the BLM cited concern for the federally protected tortoise. The agency later revoked Bundy’s grazing rights.
Bundy claims ancestral rights to graze his cattle on lands his Mormon family settled in the 19th century. He stopped paying grazing fees and disregarded several court orders to remove his animals.
BLM officials say Bundy now owes more than $1.1 million in unpaid grazing fees.
“I’m seeing a lot of passionate Americans willing to stand up for important rights,” said Nevada state Assemblywoman Michele Fiore.
Fiore, a Republican, said Friday she has been making the 80-mile drive from Las Vegas to a growing tent city of militia members, advocates and protesters in dusty but scenic rangeland near Bundy’s ranch, just east of the Virgin River. She said she was horrified that BLM police used stun guns on one of Bundy’s adult sons during a Wednesday confrontation on a state highway near the Bundy melon farm in the Gold Butte area.
Video of that confrontation has spread on the Internet, along with blog commentary claiming excessive government force and calls to arms from self-described militia leaders. Some have invoked references to deadly confrontations with federal authorities, including a siege of a ranch home in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in 1992, and the fiery destruction of a religious compound near Waco, Texas, that killed 76 people in 1993.
In Arizona, a congressman said he and several state Republican lawmakers may travel to Bunkerville to protest what they perceive as government heavy-handedness.
U.S. Rep. Bob Thorpe of Flagstaff said he and state legislators weren’t arguing whether Bundy broke laws or violated grazing agreements. Thorpe said the Arizona lawmakers were upset the BLM initially restricted protesters to “free-speech zones.”
U.S. Sen. Dean Heller and Gov. Brian Sandoval, both Republicans, have also said they were upset with the way the BLM was conducting the roundup.
After the areas were removed Thursday, Sandoval issued a new statement.
“Although tensions remain high, escalation of current events could have negative, long lasting consequences that can be avoided,” it said.
Amy Lueders, BLM state director in Nevada, told reporters the agency made changes to respond to the governor’s concerns. She said protesters would be allowed to congregate on public land as long as they don’t disrupt the gathering operation.
The roundup started last Saturday, after the BLM and National Park Service shut down an area half the size of Delaware to let cowhands using helicopters and vehicles gather about 900 cattle that officials say are trespassing.
BLM officials reported 352 cows were collected by Wednesday. The roundup has continued, but no further updates have been provided.
Bundy, 67, and his large family cast their resistance to the roundup as a constitutional stand. He says he doesn’t recognize federal authority over state land.