LAS VEGAS — Federal authorities were on the defensive Tuesday during the fourth day of their planned monthlong offensive to remove an outspoken rancher's cattle from lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management.
As dozens of protesters chanted slogans in designated "First Amendment areas," armed federal officials oversaw the roundup of hundreds of cattle belonging to Nevada cattle rancher Cliven Bundy, who for decades has thumbed his nose at Washington, refusing to pay grazing fees to run 900 cattle on federal land.
Federal authorities have closed off the portions of the 600,000-acre Gold Butte area and are rounding up what they call "trespass cattle," many of which belong to Bundy. By Tuesday, 234 had been impounded, officials said.
But critics are questioning the rationale of the cash-strapped BLM spending resources to round up the cattle. Residents near the land closure areas, habitat for the federally protected desert tortoise, have complained of lack of access during the roundup.
Bundy's relatives say the federal government has exaggerated the patriarch's promise to protect his cattle at any cost, misusing his words as rationale to wage what they call a misguided range war against a veteran rancher.
A local newspaper editorial on Tuesday chided the government for its "incompetence in public land management," saying the cattle roundup was "heavy handed."
"Instead of rounding up Mr. Bundy's cattle on the public's dime, the BLM should sell of more of its land holdings to local owners – in Nevada, Utah and across the West – who would be far better caretakers," said the lead editorial in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. "They certainly couldn't do any worse than Washington."
A columnist for the newspaper took the BLM to task for its so-called free-speech zone, set up many miles from where the gathering was taking place. "Perhaps I've led a sheltered life, but … [I've] never set foot in a First Amendment Area," John L. Smith wrote.
"When you're using the full weight of the federal government to overcome the boot heel dragging of one recalcitrant Nevada rancher, it's probably best that not too many taxpayers watch it happen," he wrote.
Federal officials say Bundy is illegally running cattle on public land, which is administered by the BLM and the National Park Service. His legal battle with the U.S. goes back to the 1990s, and he has repeatedly been on the losing side of federal court decisions.
A federal judge ruled last year that if Bundy did not remove his cattle, they could be seized by the BLM. That seizure began Saturday.
Christie Vanover, a spokeswoman for the National Park Service, acknowledged in a conference call with reporters Tuesday that federal officials were seeing a "mixed reaction" to the roundups.
"We've seen the editorials, but we've also seen letters of support," she said. "That's what makes democracy so great, that people can express their opinions."
Vanover said federal officials were bound by law to carry out a court decision to remove Bundy's cattle. "We've taken this action because Mr. Bundy decided not to follow the rules. We also understand that people are in opposition and are concerned about costs, but this is all happening because one gentleman refused to move his cattle."
She said officials had not disclosed the expected cost of the roundup or how many officials are involved. "The level of security is directly related to the level of threats we received," she said, adding that officials were armed only to protect the roundup contractors. "Unfortunately, this will cost the taxpayers money with the added personnel."
Bundy, 68, has refused to pay BLM grazing fees since 1993, arguing in court filings that his Mormon ancestors worked the land long before the BLM was formed, giving him rights that predate federal involvement. His back fees to the BLM exceed $300,000, he says. The government puts the tab above $1 million, adding that Bundy also would be held financially responsible, in part, for the roundup costs.
A father of 14, Bundy contends that generations of his family have ranched and worked this unforgiving landscape along the Virgin River since the 1880s. He says he "fired the BLM," and vows not to pay the agency he accuses of plotting his demise.
In the past, he has told reporters that he keeps firearms at his ranch, 90 minutes north of Las Vegas, and has vowed to do "whatever it takes" to defend his animals from seizure.
"I've got to protect my property," he told The Times last year. "If people come to monkey with what's mine, I'll call the county sheriff. If that don't work, I'll gather my friends and kids and we'll try to stop it. I abide by all state laws. But I abide by almost zero federal laws."
But on Tuesday, his daughter Bailey Logue said those comments had been taken out of context by both the press and federal officials. She said authorities used those words as a pretext to arrest Bundy's son David on Sunday. The younger Bundy has been charged with two misdemeanors after he ignored orders to leave the roundup area.
"The only thing my father has ever said is that he will do whatever it takes to protect his cattle," Logue told The Times on Tuesday. "People have completely blown this out of proportion. The federal authorities are the ones who are armed, pointing their weapons at us. We're not even carrying guns."
She added: "The only thing my dad carries is a pocket knife."