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Two of Nevada’s top elected leaders are riding to the rescue of a rancher whose decades-long range war with the federal government has reached a boiling point in recent days.
The federal Bureau of Land Management has surrounded the Clark County ranch of Cliven Bundy with armed officers, helicopters and four-wheel drive vehicles. Last week, they began seizing cattle found grazing on adjacent federal lands in violation of a law meant to protect an endangered desert tortoise.
Both Gov. Brian Sandoval and Sen. Dean Heller have condemned the BLS for what they characterize as heavy-handed actions involving Bundy and other Silver State residents.
“No cow justifies the atmosphere of intimidation which currently exists nor the limitation of constitutional rights that are sacred to all Nevadans,” Sandoval, a Republican, said. “The BLM needs to reconsider its approach to this matter and act accordingly.”
Heller, also a Republican, said he told BLM Director Neil Kornze the situation is being handled poorly.
“I told him very clearly that law-abiding Nevadans must not be penalized by an over-reaching BLM,” Heller said.
Bundy, 67, who has been a rancher all his life, told FoxNews.com last week he believes the federal agency is trying to push him to the breaking point and likened his situation to the 1993 disaster in Waco, Texas, in which federal and state law enforcement agencies laid siege to a compound of religious fanatics calling themselves Branch Davidians, a move that resulted in the deaths of 76.
“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 ranchers whose cattloe graze there must pay fees. Bundy, a descendant of Mormons who settled in Bunkerville more than 140 years ago, claims an inherent right to graze the area and casts the conflict as a states' rights issue. He said he doesn't recognize federal authority on land that he insists belongs to Nevada.
BLM spokeswoman Kirsten Cannon said agents on Saturday and Sunday rounded up 134 of an estimated 900 trespassing cattle in a vast 1,200-square-mile area of rangeland northeast of Las Vegas and the Lake Mead National Recreation Area. Cannon said the roundup was a last resort and blamed Cliven Bundy for "inflammatory statements," including vows to fight and characterizations of the cow removal as a range war.
"Mr. Bundy has been in trespass on public lands for more than 20 years," Cannon said, adding that he owes the federal government some $1.1 million in unpaid grazing fees.
The bureau last week announced the area would be closed through May 12 while contractors conduct the roundup using helicopters, vehicles and temporary pens. Cannon said the agency paid the contractors $966,000.
Bundy's son, Dave Bundy, 37, was arrested Sunday for refusing to disperse as the roundup began, but freed the next day.
Federal officials tried to round up Bundy's livestock two years ago, but he refused to budge.
Since then, he has lost two federal court rulings — and a judge last October prohibited him from physically interfering with any seizure or roundup operation.
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.
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.”
FoxNews.com's Robert Gearty contributed to this report.