The battle lines are hardening in Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy's so-called range war against the federal government over his right to graze cattle on public lands.
Arguments have moved from the Nevada desert to the nation’s capital, where Nevada's two U.S. senators, Republican Dean Heller and Democrat Harry Reid, recently faced off on a television public affairs show in Las Vegas.
Heller described Bundy's cadre of armed supporters as “patriots” during the show, "What's the Point," on KSNV-TV News 3. Reid repeated his claim that the so-called militia men are “domestic terrorists.”
Officials from the Bureau of Land Management say Bundy is illegally running hundreds of head of cattle in the 600,000-acre Gold Butte area, habitat of the federally protected desert tortoise. 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. For years, he has threatened to forcefully protect his cattle.
Federal officials moved in to remove the animals, but called off the roundup nine days ago, saying they wanted to avoid violence, a specter presented when dozens of supporters - many armed with rifles and automatic weapons - gathered at the Bundy ranch 90 miles north of Las Vegas.
For now, the standoff has remained a war of words, with Bundy seen as a modern folk hero among free-speech advocates and others who believe that the federal government has no right to tell a Nevada rancher how to run his cattle on state land. Environmentalists call Bundy an illegal squatter.
In the television interview, Heller called for a Senate hearing on the dispute.
For his part, Reid appeared to get testy when asked on the show to explain his remark. “Just what I said,” he responded tersely.
Heller then prompted another face-off, saying, "What Sen. Reid may call domestic terrorists, I call patriots," Heller said. "We have a very different view on this."
"If they are patriots, we are in trouble," Reid shot back, criticizing the supporters for showing up with assault weapons and boasting about putting children in the front of the pack.
Heller says the BLM amped tensions in the long-simmering dispute over Bundy’s cattle by dispatching armed officials to help round up the animals. "I want to talk about the fact that they have this kind of authority and the ability to bully and come in with 200 armed men into a situation like this," he said.
Reid replied that the armed supporters were breaking federal laws: "These characters walk around with their Constitution in their pocket. They should read the Nevada Constitution.”
Reid refused to speculate what will happen next. “I don't think it is going to be tomorrow that something is going to happen, but something will happen.”
The government has said the cattle roundup 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.
On his own blog, Bundy has posted the creed of a national militia movement that has come to his support. Over the weekend, he also posted pictures of cattle that had been killed and buried during the BLM collection earlier this month.
“Digging up 1 of the HUGE holes where they threw the cows that they had ran to death or shot,” reads a website caption under the picture of a bulldozer removing an animal carcass. “I feel that this NEEDS to be put out for the public to see.”
Bundy says he has as much right to graze his cattle on public lands as those who hike, camp – or even advocate the protection of the threatened desert tortoise and other wildlife.
For years Bundy has insisted that his cattle aren't going anywhere. He acknowledges that he keeps firearms at his ranch, 80 miles 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 has told The Times. "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 environmentalists said Monday that his actions set a bad precedent.
“It’s not just about the desert tortoise. The precedent this sets is dangerous – to let people like Bundy have free rein over public lands,” said Ken Cole, National Environmental Policy Act coordinator for the nonprofit Western Watershed Project, to the Los Angeles Times.
“It’s very clear that these public lands are not his. Under a public trust doctrine, the BLM and National Park Service manage these lands for the American people."
[For the record, April 21, 2:56 p.m. PDT: An earlier version of this post incorrectly referred to Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy as Clive Bundy.]