A Nevada rancher's threat to wage a "range war" with the federal Bureau of Land Management precipitated a standoff today between supporters of the embattled rancher, Cliven Bundy, and law enforcement officials.
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Bundy posted a statement on the Bundy Ranch website on Sunday night saying: "They have my cattle and now they have one of my boys. Range War begins tomorrow."
He invited supporters to show up this morning on his property, about 80 miles northeast of Las Vegas, near Bunkerville, just west of the Utah state line.
Bundy's beef with federal land management officials dates back to 1993, according to federal officials, when Bundy's allotment for grazing his cattle on public land was modified to include protections for the desert tortoise. Bundy, who told the Associated Press his family has been ranching this part of Nevada since the 1870s, did not accept the modified terms, and continued to let his cattle graze anyway.
After legal maneuverings on both sides, a Nevada district court judge in 2013 permanently enjoined Bundy's cattle (some 900, by the government's count) from grazing on public property. The judge reiterated that decision in 2013 and authorized the U.S. government to impound the cattle.
The first phase of that impoundment started Saturday, with 58 head of cattle being removed from BLM land, federal officials said in an online statement. As of Monday afternoon, that number had risen to 134, BLM spokeswoman Kirsten Cannon told ABC News. Removing the rest of the trespassing cattle should take another 21 to 30 days, she said.
Bundy disputes the federal government's authority to take such action. The Nevada Sheriff's Office, he contends, is the only entity empowered to impound his cattle. The Bundy Ranch website calls the federal agents "cattle thieves."
Cattle thieves, says the website, "Should be hung!" It urges supporters to "hang them with words of disapproval."
According to station KSNY MyNews in Las Vegas, Bundy compared his situation to citizens' confrontations with the federal government at Ruby Ridge and at Waco, Texas.
The station quoted him as saying, "They are the same agents who killed that kid over at Red Rocks," referring to the fatal shooting of a 20-year-old man by two BLM rangers on Feb. 14, near Red Rock Canyon, outside Las Vegas.
Asked by ABC News about that shooting, Cannon said the incident was still under investigation, and that BLM could not comment until the investigation was completed.
Bundy's wife, Carol Bundy, reached by ABC News, said the family and their supporters intended to hold a rally today "to show that we are not standing alone. People are getting tired of the federal government having unlimited power."
By noon today Nevada time, about 300 supporters had assembled, a Bundy spokesman, Dwayne Magoon, told ABC News. So, too, he said, had local and federal law enforcement officers. He described the federal agents as being heavily armed. He said that on his way driving to the Bundy ranch, he counted 12 law enforcement vehicles in the course of six miles.
The BLM has described Bundy's use of the phrase "range war" inflammatory. "We support everyone's right to exercise their freedom of expression," Cannon said. But when threats are made, she said, federal authorities have an obligation to ensure safety. She estimated the number of Bundy supporters as being closer to 100.
In a teleconference with reporters today, Cannon and a spokesperson for the National Park Service were told that Bundy supporters had reported seeing snipers present near the Ranch. Asked whether snipers indeed were on the scene, they said that law enforcement was in place, as needed, and that they could not comment more specifically.
Magoon described the situation at the Ranch as "very peaceful" -- for now. The protesters, he said, were busy erecting a big sign saying "We, The People" and displaying the flags of Mesquite County, Nev., and the U.S.
On the ranch website, Bundy says his son had been arrested. That was confirmed today by BLM, which said in a published statement that, "On April 6, Dave Bundy, 37, was taken into custody in Bunkerville, Nevada, following failure to comply with multiple requests by BLM law enforcement to leave the temporary closure area on public lands." He now has been released, Cannon said.
So far, the Nevada Cattlemen's Association (NCA), which represents some 700 ranchers in the state, is taking a hands-off stance on Bundy's protest.
In a statement, the association noted that Bundy's case had been reviewed by a federal judge, and that a legal decision had been rendered to remove the cattle. The statement said that NCA "does not feel it is in our best interest to interfere in the process of adjudication in this matter, and in addition NCA believes the matter is between Mr. Bundy and the federal courts."
Asked about the Bundy situation, NCA president Ron Torell told ABC News, "This has gotten way out of hand."
Asked if other Nevada cattlemen were as angry with the federal government as Bundy, Torell said, "absolutely not."
It's true, he said, that many NCA members are disgruntled at having to deal with BLM's bureaucracy. But, he noted, 87 percent of Nevada land is public land, so cattlemen cannot survive on private land alone. "It's important for our permitees to work with the land management agencies. We want to be good stewards of the land -- to protect natural resources."
Of the Bundy affair, he said, "These types of situations have a way of painting the entire industry with controversy."