Nevada Ranch Dispute Ends As Feds Back Down — For Now

A Wild West-style dispute between a Nevada rancher and the Bureau of Land Management has subsided — at least for the moment. Saying Cliven Bundy owed substantial back fees for allowing cattle to graze on federal land, the BLM had begun rounding up his cattle. But following protests from Bundy and hundreds of others, some armed, the BLM backed down, for now.

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A standoff between federal agents and a Nevada rancher is over for now. Over the weekend, the Bureau of Land Management released about 400 head of cattle it had rounded up, fearing a violent confrontation. Militia members, including many with guns, had rallied in support of the rancher, Cliven Bundy, and his family. NPR's Ted Robbins has the story.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: No BLM. No BLM. No BLM.

TED ROBBINS, BYLINE: The situation came to a head on Saturday. Supporters confronted BLM rangers and local police near a holding pen where the cattle were being held beneath a highway overpass in the desert 80 miles east of Las Vegas. A federal officer asked one of Cliven Bundy's sons to help diffuse the situation.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I'll give you my honest word right here. I'm gonna walk you in so you can negotiate with your father up top.

ROBBINS: The BLM backed down. In exchange for keeping the crowd calm, the government allowed the Bundys to release their cattle back into the desert. The tension began last week when the BLM began enforcing two court orders against the Bundy family. Its cows were illegally grazing on about 600,000 acres of federal land after Cliven Bundy refused to pay grazing fees. The government says he owes more than a million dollars over the last two decades. Bundy says he owes $300,000. The amount is really not the point.

Cliven Bundy says he has ancestral rights to graze since his family's been doing it since the 1870s. His son, Ryan Bundy, told member station KNPR that the land doesn't even belong to the government. He says there's a larger constitutional issue.

RYAN BUNDY: How are these considered federal lands, all right? This is the issue. This is the crux of the issue, all right? We, the people of the United States, created the federal government through the Constitution of the United States.

ROBBINS: Bundy says the land actually belongs to the state of Nevada. It was the state's rights issue that brought the anti-federal protestors, including militia members, to the fight. For well more than a century, Matthew Pearce says Western ranchers have had a strained relationship with the government. Pearce studies Western ranching and the environment at the University of Oklahoma.

MATTHEW PEARCE: It's always kind of had that mindset of kind of looking warily towards the federal government, even though - especially in the case of public lands, in many cases, it depends upon the federal government for access to those lands.

ROBBINS: That access was challenged in the 20th century as new environmental laws were passed. In fact, the BLM was pushed to action because of the Center for Biological Diversity. The environmental group threatened to sue the BLM because the Bundy's cattle are trampling habitat set aside for the protected desert tortoise. Rob Mrowka of the center points out that the Bundys are the last ranchers left in Clark County, Nevada, because others can't make money anymore.

ROB MROWKA: The food source in the desert is just so sparse. The water is just so sparse. The heat takes such a toll on the cattle that it's just not a moneymaking deal.

ROBBINS: The Bundys, though, are not about to give up. Here's Ryan Bundy again.

BUNDY: We will do whatever it takes to protect our life, liberty and our property. And that's what every single American should also say also.

ROBBINS: Asked if that includes violence, Bundy wouldn't say. The BLM says it will continue to work to resolve the issue legally and administratively. Ted Robbins, NPR News.

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