BLM mum about grazing beef

Bureau of Land Management law enforcement agents are investigating issues stemming from last spring’s planned roundup of Gold Butte rancher Cliven Bundy’s cattle that have been roaming public land northeast of Las Vegas for more than a decade in violation of federal court orders.

A Freedom of Information Act request from the Review-Journal seeking expense account records for money spent preparing for the roundup – including the cost of numerous helicopter surveys, and emails about decisions that BLM and Interior Department managers made to postpone it – has gone unanswered for five months. As such the newspaper considers the delay to be a denial of its request.

Mark Hinueber, general counsel of the Review-Journal, said Friday that the newspaper is appealing the delay in releasing the requested records.

Information about the dispute between Bundy and the BLM that had been posted on the BLM’s website was suddenly removed after Nov. 2 when law enforcement officials realized BLM Deputy State Director Robert M. Scruggs was going to make it available to the Review-Journal.

When asked why the website information was taken down, a BLM spokeswoman for the state office in Reno said bureau attorneys wanted to see if releasing expense account records would compromise an investigation.

"They have to look at anything that has to do with an ongoing investigation," BLM spokeswoman Erica Haspiel-Szlosek said in a mid-November telephone interview. The nature of the investigation was unclear.

She later said she couldn’t confirm or deny that there is an investigation.

U.S. District Court papers filed Oct. 4 show U.S. attorneys will request a summary judgment before a trial in April 2013 stemming from an unlawful-grazing complaint they filed against Bundy after the BLM suspended the roundup indefinitely for safety reasons.

The trespass complaint dwells on an expanded area where feral cattle and cattle with Bundy’s brand have wandered since a 1998 court order that required him to remove cattle from his Bunkerville allotment. Federal biologists had determined they were grazing on habitat reserved for the federally protected desert tortoise.

Bundy’s family and ancestors have grazed cattle on the range, about 80 miles northeast of Las Vegas, since 1877.

In the early 1990s, he stopped paying grazing fees, contending that the BLM started managing the land to get ranchers and cattle off of it. BLM managers canceled his Bunkerville allotment in 1994, but in Bundy’s words he fired them, saying in an April interview, "I’ll be damned if I’m going to pay them to manage my ranch."

Calls by the Review-Journal to Bundy’s home in Bunkerville last week were received by an answering machine, but the voice mail was full and couldn’t accept messages.

Court papers show he is representing himself in the civil trespass case based on the complaint that staff for Nevada District U.S. Attorney Daniel Bogden and Assistant Attorney General Ignacia Moreno of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division in Denver filed in May. They seek a permanent injunction to stop Bundy from grazing livestock on what they define as "new trespass lands."

The May 14 complaint reads:

"While the United States seeks relief only with respect to the new trespass lands, and does not seek in this action any relief in connection with the former Bunkerville allotment, it reserves the right to pursue further enforcement remedies in connection with the in­junction previously granted."

According to the court papers, the BLM completed an investigation in March 2011 in which crews in helicopters and on the ground found more than 900 cattle on federal lands over a 500,000-acre swath of the Gold Butte area, primarily south of Bunkerville.

The BLM used helicopters on at least five occasions over the course of a year to count cattle in the Gold Butte area with the last overflight in late March of this year that turned up 790 cattle.

Besides damaging habitat for wild plant and animal species, Bundy’s "unauthorized livestock grazing also poses a significant risk to public safety. The trespass livestock have wandered on public roads. The federal agencies have received reports of vehicle collisions and near collisions" with free-roaming cattle, U.S. attorneys said.

BLM officials say they have feared Bundy would engage them in a potentially violent standoff if they tried to round up his cattle.

They sought support from Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie before the planned roundup, and Gillespie met with Bundy twice, advising him that Las Vegas police officers would be there as peacekeepers.

Bundy has said he doesn’t perceive himself as a danger to the BLM, because he has remained peaceful during his 20-year feud with the bureau.

Nevertheless, after finding out that the BLM had forged a contract with Cattoor Livestock Roundup Inc. to gather at least 500 head of his cattle in the Gold Butte area and impound them, Bundy notified the company he would "do whatever it takes to protect his property and rights and liberty and freedoms."

Reached Wednesday in Nephi, Utah, Sue Cattoor of Cattoor Livestock, said the company hadn’t been contacted by federal investigators and she wasn’t aware of an investigation concerning the planned Gold Butte roundup.

She confirmed that Cattoor Livestock had been contracted by BLM to conduct the Gold Butte gather. When it was canceled, "they had to pay us expenses for mobilizing," Cattoor said.

"That roundup would have involved a lot of personnel and three helicopters."

She said another helicopter company had conducted aerial surveys of the Gold Butte area in preparation for the roundup.

After the federal court in Las Vegas ordered Bundy to stop grazing his cattle on protected desert tortoise habitat in 1998, he lost an appeal in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. During the ensuing 12 years, the BLM didn’t enforce the court order and Bundy continues to let his cattle roam public land around Gold Butte and National Park Service land along the Overton Arm of Lake Mead.

Contact reporter Keith Rogers at krogers@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0308.

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