Trespassing Cattle Set Stage for Federal Land Showdown

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LAS VEGAS (AP) - A southern Nevada rancher is refusing to budge in a showdown on the range with federal land managers.

Cliven Bundy, owner of Bunkerville ranch, maintains he has a right to graze hundreds of head of cattle on rangeland where his family has lived since 1877.

But federal Bureau of Land Management officials said he's violating a 1998 federal court order to remove his cattle from public land to preserve habitat for the federally protected desert tortoise. The order was issued four years after his grazing license was canceled.

The BLM had planned to remove his livestock from the range this month, but agency officials in Washington, D.C., last week decided to indefinitely suspend the roundup because of safety concerns for people involved, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported.

The decision came after Bundy wrote a threatening letter to BLM contractor Cattoor Livestock Roundup Inc., which was charged with removing his cattle.

"There is a volatile situation currently taking place," Bundy wrote. "Cliven Bundy will do whatever it takes to protect his property and rights and liberty and freedoms of those of, We the People, of Clark County Nevada."

BLM Southern Nevada District Manager Mary Jo Rugwell, in an April 3 letter, notified Bundy that his cattle were trespassing on public lands and causing considerable damage to natural resources.

She told him they would be rounded up and impounded because the herd had been roaming "without authorization in areas that are closed to grazing" in violation of the 1998 federal court injunction.

The letter said Bundy would be contacted after all the cattle had been gathered and he would be allowed to claim any that bear his brand.

"In my mind, the most important issue with respect to trespass is the fact trespass is unfair to other users like recreationists," Rugwell told the Review-Journal. "They pay fees and follow rules. In my mind it's a fairness issue."

In the early 1990s when he was still paying grazing fees, the herd on Bundy's 158,666-acre Bunkerville allotment was capped at 150 head.

More than 10,000 acres of the allotment was on National Park Service lands along the tip of Lake Mead's Overton Arm. After his grazing permit was canceled in 1994, the herd grew and some cattle migrated to the far reaches of the Gold Butte area.

Last week, Bundy estimated his adult cattle numbered 500 in what the BLM describes as the 500,000-acre Gold Butte area. The latest BLM count this month turned up 750.

Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie said he urged the BLM to revisit legal avenues for dealing with the disgruntled rancher. He said the 1998 court order that federal land managers were trying to enforce had withered with time.

"Those court documents are old," the sheriff said. "I ask them to take that back to court and address the issue. Then, OK, if he continues to trespass, then you seize the cattle."

Bundy contends the limitless authority the federal government had over such matters evaporated when Nevada became a state in 1864.

Ramona Morrison of Reno, a member of the Nevada Agriculture Board, said she's closely following the Bundy-BLM feud. Her late father, Wayne Hage, fought similar battles against the government as a Nevada rancher.

"We need to be sure due process of law is being followed and state law is being followed and the BLM is not conducting a rogue police operation," Morrison said.

Bret Birdsong, a professor at the Boyd School of Law at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said Bundy's legal arguments that the BLM has no jurisdiction over the federal lands he uses for ranching have been consistently rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court.

"I don't see personally why they (BLM) couldn't go back to court to seek enforcement of the injunction," Birdsong said.