RENO, Nev. – Tensions are growing on the range in a turf battle that has been simmering for decades over one of the icons of the American West and scant forage on arid, high desert lands from Nevada to Wyoming.
Wild-horse protection advocates say the government is rounding up too many mustangs while allowing livestock to feed at taxpayer expense on the same rangeland scientists say is being overgrazed.
Ranchers say the government refuses to gather enough horses in the herds that double in size every five years while moving to confiscate cattle on lands where their ancestors have operated for more than a century.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management says it's doing all it can given an insufficient budget, overflowing holding pens and a distaste for the politically unpopular options of either ending the costly roundups or slaughtering excess horses.
The conflicts are moving fast toward confrontation.
County commissioners in southwest Utah have threatened to take matters into their own hands to round up horses if the Bureau of Land Management won't. In southern Nevada, a rancher is pledging to do "whatever it takes" to fend off federal agents who are mobilizing to seize his cattle the government says have been trespassing on U.S. land without the required grazing permits for 25 years.
"The BLM is figuring on taking my cattle by force I guess," said Cliven Bundy, 67, who estimates as many as 300 federal agents and other personnel had gathered by Friday in the area surrounding the ranch his family has operated since the 1870s southwest of Mesquite a few miles from the Utah line.
"I've tried to stop them for 20 years. I've tried to be legal in the courts. I've tried to do it politically and through the media. Now, it's about down to having to do it as `We the people,' `' he told The Associated Press on Friday.
It's a battle that has raged since the 1980s when the Sagebrush Rebellion challenged federal ownership of Nevada rangeland ranchers said was rightfully theirs. The family of the late Wayne Hage is still in court 30 years later in a fight with the federal government over the family's water and grazing rights north of Tonopah.
During the past 10 years, horse advocates have been more the aggressors, filing dozens of motions seeking injunctions and pursuing lawsuits aimed at blocking roundups they say violate the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burro Act President Richard Nixon signed into law in 1971. But in recent months, ranchers have again gone back on the attack.
The Nevada Farm Bureau Federation and Nevada Association of Counties filed a lawsuit against the government in U.S. District Court in Reno in December seeking to force the Bureau of Land Management to step up roundups and, if necessary, sell excess mustangs for slaughter -- something they say is allowed under the law but that federal agency has resisted.
Earlier this week, a federal magistrate judge in Reno granted horse advocates' request to become a party in that case based on their argument no one else involved -- including the Bureau of Land Management -- has the horses' best interest in mind.
"While the government is presumed to represent the interests of its citizens, the (advocates) have adequately rebutted this presumption," Judge William Cobb wrote Wednesday in granting the motion by the American Wild Horse Protection Campaign and others who claim the federal agency "favors the interests of cattle grazing."
In southwest Utah, the Iron County Commission is threatening to gather up hundreds of mustangs themselves, saying the horses threaten livestock and wildlife on rangelands already damaged by drought.
"We will take whatever action we have to take to reduce those numbers immediately," Commissioner David Miller told the Salt Lake Tribune.
Horse advocates said Friday that they're considering various options in response to the county's plans.
"If these ranchers round up wild horses on federal land, they are breaking the law," said Paula Todd King of the Colorado-based Cloud Foundation.
A federal judge in Las Vegas first ordered Bundy to remove his trespassing cattle in 1998. Similar orders were issued last July and again in October, but Bundy doesn't recognize federal authority on land he insists belongs to Nevada.
Bureau of Land Management spokeswoman Kirsten Cannon said the agency won't discuss details of its plans or the number of personnel involved in a dispute that it has been trying to resolve more than two decades. Bundy's trespassing is "unfair to the thousands of other ranchers who graze livestock in compliance with federal laws and regulations throughout the West" and the impoundment is "a last resort," the agency said on its Web site.
Bundy said he has about 500 animals he values at $1,000 or more each. Asked if he had any concerns about a confrontation turning violent, he said: "It's violent right now if you have 300 well-armed officers on the ground."