LAS VEGAS — Nevada's governor and one of its U.S. senators have joined a chorus of criticism of a month-long federal government roundup of a recalcitrant rancher’s 900 cattle that for decades have grazed on hundreds of thousands of acres of public lands near here.
Gov. Brian Sandoval said in a statement that his office has received numerous complaints about the operation by the Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service to collect cattle belonging to southern Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who for decades has refused to pay the required fees to graze his animals on public land.
The Republican governor called the operation, which has closed off to the public huge tracts of land while workers in trucks and helicopters round up the cattle, a violation of the rights of everyday Nevadans. He singled out the BLM’s so-called “1st Amendment area,” far from the collection of the cattle, for critics to protest the move.
“Most disturbing to me is the BLM’s establishment of a ‘1st Amendment area’ that tramples upon Nevadans’ fundamental rights under the U.S. Constitution. To that end, I have advised the BLM that such conduct is offensive to me and countless others and that the ‘1st Amendment area’ should be dismantled immediately,” he said in the statement.
“No cow justifies the atmosphere of intimidation which currently exists nor the limitation of constitutional rights that are sacred to all Nevadans. The BLM needs to reconsider its approach to this matter and act accordingly.”
Sandoval added that he has “met with state legislators, county officials and concerned citizens to listen to their concerns. I have expressed those concerns directly to the BLM.”
In a statement Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) also expressed "disappointment” over the court-ordered roundup.
“Law-abiding Nevadans must not be penalized by an over-reaching BLM. After hearing from local officials and residents, and receiving feedback from the Nevada Cattlemen’s Assn. in a meeting this morning, I remain extremely concerned about the size of this closure and disruptions with access to roads, water and electrical infrastructure,” the statement said.
“I will continue to closely monitor this situation, and urge the BLM to make the necessary changes in order to preserve Nevadans’ constitutional rights.”
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 exceed $300,000, he says. The government puts the tab above $1 million, adding that Bundy will be held financially responsible for part of the roundup costs.
A father of 14, Bundy says generations of his family have ranched and worked the 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 and has vowed to do "whatever it takes" to defend his animals from seizure.
Federal authorities have closed off 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 Wednesday, 277 cattle had been impounded, officials said.
But critics are questioning the rationale of a supposedly cash-strapped BLM spending an undisclosed amount of money to round up the cattle. Residents near the closed areas have complained about their lack of access during the roundup.
Bundy’s family says federal officials have blown out of proportion the patriarch’s promise to protect his cattle at any cost and are misusing his words as rationale to wage what they call a misguided range war against a veteran rancher.
On Wednesday, Bundy’s daughter, Bailey Logue, said the governor’s statements did not go far enough.
"He could have said anything and all he does is request that the free speech zones be taken down,” she said from the family ranch near the town of Bunkerville, 80 miles north of Las Vegas. “He gave us a crumb of support, so I guess we’re thankful for that.”
BLM officials have said the “1st amendment areas” were created to promote free speech.
So far, the agency has yet to disclose how much the planned one-month operation will cost or how many officials are involved. On its website, the BLM explained the rationale behind the roundup.
“Impoundments of livestock are done only as a last resort,” the agency said. “In this case, the BLM and the National Park Service have made repeated attempts to resolve the matter with Mr. Bundy administratively and judicially for over 20 years. Mr. Bundy has also failed to comply with multiple court orders to remove his cattle from the federal lands and to end the illegal trespass.”
On Tuesday, a Las Vegas Review-Journal editorial chided the federal government for its “incompetence in public land management,” suggesting that the cattle roundup was “heavy handed.”
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. In Nevada, the BLM manages 87% of the state's land.
Experts say antigovernment clashes at Idaho's Ruby Ridge and Waco, Texas, are the modern chapters of an old Western story.
"It's the 18th century mind-set that the sweat off your brow determines your ability to survive, not the government," Jeffrey Richardson, a historian at the Autry National Center in Los Angeles, told the Los Angeles Times for a story last year about Bundy. "But the notion of the great pioneer has been slowly chipped away by barbed wire and government regulation."
Bending to the federal government's will is hard for independents like Bundy, Richardson added: "If a family has worked for generations to shape the land to their needs, it's difficult. These people have long thrived in difficult territory."
Others told The Times that Bundy’s rugged individualism is misguided. "The reality is this is public land, and that means something," said Paul Starrs, a geography professor at the University of Nevada at Reno. "He's part of a long chain and he's entitled to feel oppressed. But that doesn't mean he's right."