LAS VEGAS – Wielding signs and slogans, several hundred demonstrators rallied Monday to support beleaguered cattle rancher Cliven Bundy and his family in a turf battle against the federal government.
They had responded to an alert promising a new skirmish: "Range War begins at the Bundy ranch at 9:30 a.m. We're going to get the job done!"
Bundy is battling with federal officials over his cattle's grazing on 150 square miles of scrub desert overseen by the Bureau of Land Management. He 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.
Officials say Bundy is illegally running cattle in the 600,000-acre Gold Butte area, habitat of the federally protected desert tortoise. Last year, a federal court judge ruled that if the 68-year-old veteran rancher did not remove his cattle, they could be seized by the BLM. That seizure began Saturday.
Bundy and his supporters remain unbowed.
"We have hundreds of people here standing behind us," said Bundy's daughter Bailey Logue, 22, during a telephone interview Monday from the family ranch, as a rooster crowed in the background. "We're letting these federal people know that the Bundy family is not the only ones who care what happens to this land."
Federal authorities have closed off the Gold Butte area and are rounding up what they call "trespass cattle," many of which belong to Bundy. By Monday, 134 cattle had been impounded, according to the BLM website.
"Cattle have been in trespass on public lands in southern Nevada for more than two decades. This is unfair to the thousands of other ranchers who graze livestock in compliance with federal laws and regulations throughout the West," the BLM website announced. "The Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service have made repeated attempts to resolve this matter administratively and judicially. An impoundment of cattle illegally grazing on public lands is now being conducted as a last resort."
Bundy says he "fired the BLM," and vows not to pay one dime to the agency that he accuses of plotting his demise.
A father of 14, Bundy insists that generations of his family have ranched and worked this unforgiving landscape along the Virgin River since the 1880s. He says government over-regulation has driven scores of fellow ranchers out of business in sprawling Clark County, leaving him as the last man standing.
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 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."
In 1998, a federal judge issued a permanent injunction against the white-haired rancher, ordering his cattle off the land and setting off a long series of legal filings.
Environmentalists say it's time for Bundy to get his cattle off federal land because they are endangering the habitat of creatures who have been there for eons.
"Despite having no legal right to do so, cattle from Bundy's ranch have continued to graze throughout the Gold Butte area, competing with tortoises for food, hindering the ability of plants to recover from extensive wildfires, trampling rare plants, damaging ancient American Indian cultural sites and threatening the safety of recreationists," the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity said in a statement.
The group added, "Surveys by the BLM have found well over 1,000 cattle — many in easily damaged freshwater springs and riparian areas on public lands managed by the National Park Service and state of Nevada as well as the BLM."
Despite the court order, Bundy has refused to remove one head of cattle from BLM land. "At first I said, 'No,'" he told The Times last year. "Then I said, 'Hell, no.'"
Bailey Logue said her father was meeting with Clark County Sheriff Douglas Gillespie in Las Vegas Monday.
The sheriff recently told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that neither Bundy nor the BLM should resort to violence. "No drop of human blood is worth spilling over any cow," he told the newspaper.
But the family says violence has already occurred. BLM officials "roughed up" 37-year-old Dave Bundy, Cliven Bundy's son, on Sunday as he tried to take pictures of cattle being taken from the federal land, Bailey Logue says.
In a statement Monday, the BLM said the younger Bundy was arrested after "failure to comply with multiple requests by BLM law enforcement to leave the temporary closure area on public lands."
Dave Bundy was released on Monday. It was unclear whether he would face charges.
The Bundy family vows the war will continue.
"My ancestors created the rights to that land one hundred and some odd years ago," Bailey Logue said. "And we're not giving them up."