Fearing for their safety as armed protesters gathered in the Nevada back country, federal officials on Saturday suddenly ended a controversial effort to seize hundreds of cattle that a rancher has kept illegally on public land.
The cattle ranch's owner, Cliven Bundy, and hundreds of armed supporters had threatened to forcefully keep Bureau of Land Management employees from rounding up the approximately 900 cattle. Nearly 400 of the cattle had been seized during the past week. They were being held nearby and could be sent to Utah, authorities said.
In a meeting Saturday, Bundy urged Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie to seize the federal officials' weapons and bring them back to the rancher. The demand coincided with the sheriff, who's sought to avoid bloodshed, reading a news release from the BLM to a jubilant crowd gathered near Bundy's ranch.
"Based on information about conditions on the ground, and in consultation with law enforcement, we have made a decision to conclude the cattle gather because of our serious concern about the safety of employees and members of the public," BLM Director Neil Kornze said. He asked that everyone in the area remain peaceful as officials work to shut down the operation.
The government has said the cattle round-up was a "last resort" to enforce court orders ruling that Bundy has failed to pay more than $1 million in fees since 1993 for his cattle to graze on public land. 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 say.
The 68-year-old father of 14 has argued in court that his Mormon ancestors worked the land since 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. He said they should go take back his seized cattle, and protesters rode their horses and drove their cars to the side of Interstate 15, causing traffic headaches for early afternoon motorists.
As of early Saturday afternoon, the protesters hadn't made an attempt to retake the livestock.
U.S. Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) said in a statement that local and out-of-state "protesters and militia groups" should go back home and allow the BLM to safely get its equipment out.
"The dispute is over, the BLM is leaving, but emotions and tensions are still near the boiling point, and we desperately need a peaceful conclusion to this conflict," Heller said. "We are very close to a calm, peaceful resolution but it only takes the action of one individual to stir things up again and bring us back to the brink of violence and no one wants to see that happen."
The operation drew criticism this week from a number of Republican lawmakers, including Heller and Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval.
"No cow justifies the atmosphere of intimidation which currently exists nor the limitation of constitutional rights that are sacred to all Nevadans," Sandoval had said in a statement this week. "The BLM needs to reconsider its approach to this matter and act accordingly."
On Saturday, Sandoval told reporters that the halt of the impoundment was the best possible outcome.
Federal officials, including those from the National Park Service, had been using trucks and helicopters to move cattle off of 150 square miles of scrub desert in the 600,000-acre Gold Butte area, a habitat of the protected desert tortoise. They had shut down much of the area and left protesters to demonstrate from designated "First Amendment areas."
The confrontation has been testy. One of Bundy's sons was arrested and later released Sunday on suspicion of failing to comply with the temporary closure of public land. Another son was hit with a stun gun during a scuffle. The BLM said one of its trucks was struck by a protester on an ATV and that the protesters then formed a blockade to keep the truck from moving.
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 impoundment. In Nevada, the BLM manages 87% of the state's land.
Environmentalists argue that the cattle steal food away from 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 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.