Federal authorities will restrict access to almost 600,000 acres of public land for the next seven weeks as they prepare to round up what they call “trespass cattle” in the desert 80 miles northeast of Las Vegas.
The Bureau of Land Management’s temporary closure of the Gold Butte, Mormon Mesa and Bunkerville Flats areas takes effect today and lasts through May 12. During that time, federal officials and contract cowboys plan to impound several hundred cattle left on the range by Bunkerville rancher Cliven Bundy as part of a dispute that is about to come to a head after more than 20 years.
Bundy has said he doesn’t recognize the federal government’s authority to tell him what to do on land his family has used since 1877 but does not own. He said will “do whatever it takes” to protect his cattle and his property rights.
Federal officials have repeatedly ordered him to remove his livestock from a federal grazing allotment he stopped paying the government for in 1993. The BLM officially closed the former Bunkerville allotment to grazing in 1999 out of concern for the federally protected desert tortoise, but Bundy’s cattle remain.
The BLM made a similar move to impound the rogue livestock in 2012, but the operation was hastily canceled the day before it was set to begin in part out of fear of a violent confrontation.
Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie met with Bundy several times as the 2012 roundup was being organized, and he has been in contact with the rancher ever since. He visited the Bundy family at their spread along the Virgin River a few weeks ago, when it became clear that no compromise could be found to stave off federal action.
Gillespie said he hoped to convince the family to keep their protests peaceful.
“I didn’t get any assurances,” he said.
Nor did he have any assurances to give.
Metro has no role to play in the roundup, which will unfold on federal land under the supervision of federal law enforcement agents. There is nothing a county sheriff can do to stop it, Gillespie said.
“I have sympathy and understanding for Mr. Bundy, but I also understand that sometimes court decisions go against that feeling you have. I work within the confines of the law,” he said.
State agriculture officials are taking a similar approach. Spokesman Bob Conrad said the Nevada Department of Agriculture has no plan to intervene in what it considers a federal matter.
The department’s only role will come as cattle are rounded up and state brand inspectors are called on to examine the animals to try to establish ownership, as required by Nevada law and federal court order.
If nobody can make a reasonable claim to an unmarked animal, it becomes state property to be sold at auction, Conrad said.
The Nevada Cattlemen’s Association hasn’t taken an official position on the seizure of Bundy’s cattle, but that could soon change. President Ron Torell said the association’s executive committee will discuss the situation at a special meeting next week.
“We’re watching that very carefully,” he said. “We want to make sure we’re taking the right action.”
The temporary closure was announced in a Federal Register notice posted online Wednesday and slated for publication today.
According to the notice, the public will be kept out of pockets of land within the described closure area during the impound operation, but the remainder of the 578,724 acres will remain open.
The closure area includes almost all of Clark County’s northeastern corner, from Overton east to the Arizona border and from the Lincoln County line south to the northern tip of Lake Mead.
Starting today, the bureau will post daily updates and a map online showing what in the closure area is off-limits. The website is: http://tinyurl.com/leokzah
No exact start date for the roundup has been announced, but it is likely to be soon. The closure will last 46 days. The operation is expected to take about three weeks but could drag on for a month depending on weather, the dispersal of the cattle and how easily they can be caught.
The latest BLM count, conducted by helicopter in December, logged 568 cattle scattered across a 90-mile swath of federal land in the Gold Butte area, north and east of Lake Mead’s Overton Arm, but previous surveys have placed the number at more than 900.
Crews on the ground and low-flying aircraft will be used to herd the animals into corrals and stock trailers.
Access to the area is being restricted to “ensure the safety of the public, federal employees and contractor personnel,” the Federal Register notice states.
It goes on to designate two locations outside the closure area “available for members of the public to express their First Amendment rights,” though only one of the locations — picked at the discretion of the government — will be available at a time.
Gillespie is urging people on both sides of the fence to keep their cool.
“I’m always concerned when there are situations like this where there is so much emotion. I hope calmer heads will prevail like they normally do,” the sheriff said. “You’re talking about rounding up cattle. You have to keep that in perspective. No drop of human blood is worth spilling over any cow, in my opinion.”