After spending a week whisking away nearly 400 cattle they said were illegally grazing on federal land in the Nevada desert, officials facing a battalion of protesters with horses and guns decided to free those cattle in a stunning reversal Saturday afternoon.
A line of cattle calmly filtered out of a federal holding area at about 3 p.m. as protesters and law enforcement watched from alongside Interstate 15 near the Nevada-Arizona state line.
"Due to escalating tensions, the cattle have been released from the enclosures in order to avoid violence and help restore order," the U.S. Bureau of Land Management said in a short statement.
Federal officials have failed for 21 years to compel rancher Cliven Bundy to pay the fee required to let privately owned cattle use public land.
The government has said the cattle roundup was a "last resort" to enforce court orders ruling that Bundy had failed to pay more than $1 million in fees since 1993. Forcing him either to pay or to give up his cattle is a matter of fairness to the 16,000 ranchers who do follow the rules, U.S. officials said.
Two weeks ago, the BLM and the National Park Service began mobilizing helicopters, trucks, cowboys and rangers to seize Bundy's 900 cattle.
The agencies moved nearly 400 to the holding area before suddenly announcing Saturday morning that the operation would end because of "grave concerns" about worker safety.
Bundy received nationwide support from people frustrated by what they described as government overreach, and at least several dozen of them brought weapons with them to Bundy's ranch 80 miles east of Las Vegas this week. Protesters scuffled with law enforcement at least a couple of times during the seizures. On Saturday, a peaceful standoff between law enforcement and protesters in the sweltering heat temporarily closed off a stretch of I-15 in nearby Bunkerville.
[Update: April 12, 7:52 p.m.: Las Vegas Sheriff Doug Gillespie said he spent all week mediating discussions involving the governor and both state and federal lawyers. Among the sheriff's concerns were unspecified threats received by nearby businesses and the safety of people at the Clark County Fair and Rodeo this weekend in Logandale, he said.
"I cannot interfere with the federal government when it is operating on federal land," Gillespie said in a statement Saturday night. "But when a group of protesters threaten civil unrest or violence in this county -- it is my job to step in and ensure the safety of citizens."]
Bundy, a 68-year-old father of 14, has argued in court that his Mormon ancestors began working the land in the 1880s, long before the BLM was formed, giving him rights that predate federal involvement. He says he only owes about $300,000.
"We're tired of being abused," Bundy told supporters Saturday during a rally broadcast online.
Meanwhile, lawmakers called for the protesters to leave the area so that the BLM could safely remove its equipment. But the protesters refused to leave until the seized cattle were released in the 150 square miles of scrub desert in the 600,000-acre Gold Butte area.
Environmentalists argue that the cattle take food from protected desert tortoises, smash rare plants and slow down the regrowth of fire-damaged vegetation. Their numbers should be kept in check, the land advocates say.
The cost of what had been expected to be a monthlong operation hasn't been disclosed. Critics have said the cash-strapped agency should be selling land to local residents instead of wasting money on what they see as a frivolous move. In Nevada, the BLM manages 87% of the state's land.
BLM Director Neil Kornze secured his position after U.S. Senate confirmation on Tuesday, four days into the cattle roundup. From 2003 to 2011, Kornze was an aide to Sen. Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat and Senate majority leader.
The case is the latest flourish of the civil disobedience popularized during the 1970s Sagebrush Rebellion, a movement that sought greater local control in 12 Western states where the federal government administers 60% of the land.
Bundy couldn't be reached for comment.