SALT LAKE CITY — The U.S. Bureau of Land Management is warning its workers in Utah to be on alert after two men threatened an agency wrangler on Interstate 15 by pulling out a weapon and holding up a sign that read, “You need to die.”
The incident occurred Tuesday morning on the state’s major highway about 90 miles south of Salt Lake City, said BLM spokeswoman Megan Crandall.
A BLM employee was driving his agency vehicle and pulling a trailer when two hooded men came up alongside him in a dark blue Dodge truck and flipped him off, Utah Highway Patrol Sgt. Corey Houskeeper said.
The truck slowed before the men came up beside the BLM officer again and pulled out the sign and flashed a firearm, he said. No one was hurt and the men sped away.
An investigation is underway, but there are no suspects. The BLM officer wasn’t able to get the license plate number because it was covered by what appeared to be duct tape, Crandall said.
Highway troopers searched the area for the truck, and the agency has put out an alert statewide for the truck, but Houskeeper said it will be difficult to find the men since there could be thousands of trucks that fit the description.
This is the first incident of this type in recent years, Crandall and Houskeeper said. But it comes during a time of high tension between some Western residents and the BLM.
Last month, the BLM stopped rounding up Southern Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy’s cattle about 80 miles northeast of Las Vegas after a showdown with hundreds of Bundy supporters, some of them armed. Bundy, a states’ rights advocate who refuses to acknowledge the federal authority, owes more than $1 million in fees and penalties for letting his cattle use government land over the past 20 years.
There have been no reports of similar threats or confrontations in Nevada, according to a spokeswoman for the BLM state office.
More recently, rural Utah ranchers and county leaders threatened to break federal law and round up wild horses this summer if the BLM doesn’t do it first. State wildlife officials voted to back the ranchers.
On Saturday in a southeastern Utah canyon, San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman plans to lead ATV riders on BLM land in an area where motorized vehicles are banned. Lyman is using the demonstration to show his displeasure with the federal government’s closure of the trails.
The Bundy family, through a news release Thursday, urged supporters to join the protest.
The federal government owns two-thirds of Utah’s land, and a debate about what activities should be allowed on that land has been ongoing. The Republican-dominated Utah Legislature passed a law in 2012 that calls on the federal government to hand over control of all public lands before 2015, excluding national parks.
The BLM issued a statement that said, “Threats against Bureau of Land Management employees will not be tolerated, and we are pursuing this matter with local law enforcement.”
The BLM’s state director, Juan Palma, said Thursday that he remains calm despite the serious incident.
“We always are worried about our employees, but I believe that most citizens here in Utah are very law-abiding,” Palma said.
The incident drew criticism from U.S. Rep. Steven Horsford, the Southern Nevada Democrat who has called on the Clark County sheriff, Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval and U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., to remove armed militia members from Bundy’s ranch and surrounding areas in Bunkerville.
“This type of intimidation is unacceptable and must be dealt with immediately,” Horsford said in a prepared statement. “Unchecked militia groups are setting a precedent for lawlessness in the American West, and it is repugnant that this menacing behavior is spreading. No individual should fear for their life just because they showed up to work.”
This is a developing story. Check back for updates.
Review-Journal writer Henry Brean contributed to this report.