Groups from as far away as New Hampshire are riding out to Nevada to join the cattle rancher whose standoff with the federal government is growing tenser by the day.
The groups said they were going to the ranch, some 80 miles north of Las Vegas to stand with Cliven Bundy, who property is surrounded by federal agents. Bundy's herd, which once numbered nearly 1,000, is being thinned out by private contractors under the watch of dozens of armed federal agents in SUVs and helicopters, the government says, he has refused for two decades to pay fees to allow the cattle to graze on federal lands.
“Our mission here is to protect the protestors and the American citizens from the violence that the federal government is dishing out,” Jim Landy, a member of the West Mountain Rangers, who made the journey from Montana to Nevada, told Fox News Channel. “People here are scared.”
Bundy's family called for support this week after some incidents of violence between the family and protestors with law-enforcement. Bundy’s son was shot with a stun gun on Wednesday and his sister, Margaret Houston was pushed to the ground in incidents caught on video. The protests began to grow last week, after agents from the federal Bureau of Land Management shut off access to a large swath of federal land to round up Bundy’s cattle.
Landy said groups were going to the scene to try to help keep the peace.
“The Bundy family is expecting to be shot if they try to round up their own cattle,” he said. “We are here to make sure they are not harmed. The American people are afraid of their Federal Government.”
Members of a Utah militia arrived at the ranch Wednesday, and other militias from Texas, New Hampshire and Florida are reportedly set to arrive in the coming days.
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.”
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.
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. At a news conference Friday on his ranch, he said the federal government is wrong to deny his cattle access to the grazing land they've always used. He said he barely recognized the land during an airplane flyover earlier in the day.
"I flew down along the river here, and I'd seen a little herd of cows," he told a gathering of supporters. "Baby cows. They was grazing on their meadow and they was really quite happy.
"I then flew up the river here up to Flat Top Mason, and all of a sudden, there's an army up there. A compound. Probably close to a hundred vehicles and gates all around and vehicles with armed soldiers in them.
"Then I'm wondering where I am. I'm not in Afghanistan. I think I'm in Nevada. But I'm not sure right now," he said to applause and defiant shouts.
Federal officials said that BLM enforcement agents were dispatched in response to statements Bundy made which they 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 said to reporters Sunday.
The land issue allegedly began after 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.
Fox News Channel’s Matt Finn contributed reporting to this story.