For 20 years, a tough-as-leather Nevada rancher and the federal government have been locked in a bitter range war over cattle grazing rights.
This weekend the confrontation got worse, when the feds hired contract cowboys to start seizing Cliven Bundy's cattle, which have been grazing on public land managed by the Bureau of Land Management. The government officials brought a show of force that included dozens of armed agents in SUVs and helicopters.
Bundy, 67, who has been a rancher all his life, accuses BLM of stampeding over on his rights.
“This is a lot bigger deal than just my cows,” Bundy told FoxNews.com. “It’s a statement for freedom and liberty and the Constitution.”
The fight involves a 600,000-acre area under BLM control called Gold Butte, near the Utah border. The vast and rugged land is the habitat of the protected desert tortoise, and the land has been off-limits for cattle since 1998. Five years before that, when grazing was legal, Bundy stopped paying federal fees for the right.
“For more than two decades, cattle have been grazed illegally on public lands in northeast Clark County,” the BLM said in a statement. “BLM and (the National Park Service) have made repeated attempts to resolve this matter administratively and judicially. Impoundment of cattle illegally grazing on public lands is an option of last resort.”
But Bundy said he has grazed cattle on the land for decades, and his father and father's father did long before his 1,000 cattle roamed the area. He has long defied orders from bureaucrats he says are bent on running him out of business.
Just before the round-up began this weekend, Bundy said federal agents surrounded his 150-acre ranch. His son was arrested on Sunday in an incident involving the agents.
“They’ve been bringing men in and equipment and setting up a compound,” Bundy told FoxNews.com Monday. “They got helicopters flying low. They got snipers around the ranch. Our access to public lands has been blocked.”
Bundy said he is worried BLM might try to turn the situation into another Waco or Ruby Ridge.
“Yeah, there’s a little fear in me,” Bundy said. “They’re definitely set up to do that.”
Federal officials said BLM enforcement agents were dispatched in response to statements Bundy made that the agency perceived as threats.
“When threats are made that could jeopardize the safety of the American people, the contractors and our personnel; we have the responsibility to provide law enforcement to account for their safety,” National Park Service spokeswoman Christie Vanover told reporters Sunday.
Bundy, who does not have an attorney, spoke to FoxNews.com from Las Vegas, where he had gone early Monday morning to ask Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie for help. Last week, Gillespie told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that neither Bundy nor the BLM should resort to violence.
“No drop of human blood is worth spilling over any cow,” Gillespie said.
Back at the ranch, Bundy's wife Carol said she and her husband were not looking for trouble.
“We’re not pointing guns at anyone, but we’re sure getting a lot of guns pointed at us,” she said.
The trouble started when Bundy stopped paying grazing fees in 1993. He said he didn't have to because his Mormon ancestors worked the land since the 1880s, giving him rights to the land.
“We own this land,” he said, not the feds. He said he is willing to pay grazing fees but only to Clark County, not BLM.
“Years ago, I used to have 52 neighboring ranchers,” he said. “I’m the last man standing. How come? Because BLM regulated these people off the land and out of business.”
He said he won’t let the feds do that to him.
“I said, ‘No.’ Then, ‘Hell, no,’” he said.
BLM said in a statement two judges ordered Bundy to remove his cattle from Gold Butte. The Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group, said the federal action was long overdue.
“Despite having no legal right to do so, cattle from Bundy’s ranch have continued to graze throughout the Gold Butte area, competing with tortoises for food, hindering the ability of plants to recover from extensive wildfires, trampling rare plants, damaging ancient American Indian cultural sites and threatening the safety of recreationists,” Rob Mrowka, a spokesman for the group, said in a statement.