BLM releases Bundy cattle after protesters block southbound I-15

BUNKERVILLE — More than 100 head of Cliven Bundy’s confiscated cattle were released from a corral outside of Mesquite after a 20-minute standoff between angry and armed ranchers and law enforcement officers Saturday.

With rifles pointing toward each side and tensions reaching a critical level, federal land officials backed off and agreed to give up the cattle to Bundy’s family and supporters.

The mid-afternoon release by the Bureau of Land Management was hailed as a victory among supporters who had forced the closure of Interstate 15 after marching to the holding pen on the sides of the highway, although environmentalists condemned the agency’s decision.

The BLM, upset that Bundy has refused to pay about $1 million in grazing fees to the federal government for two decades, had seized at least one-third of his cattle earlier this past week in a raging debate that captured national attention and whose purpose also was to protect a critical habitat of the threatened desert tortoise.

But on Saturday the BLM decided to halt the roundup, fearing for the safety of its agents and the public.

Bundy was overcome with joy when told of the pullout earlier Saturday, and his enthusiasm caught on. A crowd just outside his ranch cheered as he shouted, “Good morning, America! Good morning, world! Isn’t it a beautiful day in Bunker­ville?”

Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie served as a negotiator between Bundy and the BLM late Friday night, but neither side said they anticipated protesters to march toward the corral.

Gillespie just moments earlier had told Bundy supporters to remain peaceful. It’s something he’d been saying all week as the Gold Butte clash heated up. The feud was held up as just another example of how the federal government takes its actions to an extreme, infringing on landowner rights.

But in Gillespie’s short speech to the crowd on the banks of the Virgin River, where Bundy’s cattle once grazed, he failed to elaborate on what federal agents planned to do with the 170 penned-up cattle.

So after reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, singing the National Anthem and saying a few prayers, protesters took matters into their own hands and mobilized in an attempt to free them. They were kept at bay by sheriff’s deputies and an array of federal agents in what turned into a tense standoff. One person said officers used bullhorns to tell marchers to keep away or they’d be shot.

“There have been no shots and nobody has been injured, and my men are working real hard to keep the calm,” Gillespie said by telephone from the scene. “But emotions are high, and we’re going to make sure that it ends peacefully.”

Las Vegas police issued a statement saying business owners in Mesquite had received threats because of the conflict.

The Metropolitan Police Department said more officers will remain in the area over the weekend and more officers have been assigned to the Clark County Fair “to ensure everyone’s safety.”

Protesters’ actions capped a weeklong fight that pitted armed federal agents against Bundy, a 67-year-old rancher who claims the land is either his for his cattle to graze on or it belongs to the state of Nevada, but it certainly doesn’t belong to the federal government.

Theresa Casella, who came to Nevada from Phoenix to protest, said she couldn’t believe that the Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service were pouring millions of dollars into impounding Bundy’s cattle, which is his livelihood.

“Wasn’t that a hangable offense back in the day?” she said, half-jokingly from the passenger seat of her pickup. “And now we have the federal government doing it? Back in the day, that was called rustling, I think.”

The roundup of what government called “trespass cattle” occurred in an area that spans 1,200 square miles in Clark County.

“We the people in this area have nothing to fear,” said Bundy, wearing a cowboy hat and a T-shirt bearing his family name. “We can carry our weapons if we like because we have Second Amendment rights, and those are God-given rights. Those Second Amendment rights are our rights. But, and I say ‘but,’ because we don’t have to carry them right now because we’re afraid. I’m telling you that right now. Because there’s been a lot of people who’ve been afraid, and I know that feeling. Just yesterday evening I was really afraid. … Today, we have been confirmed by our creator that we do not have to be afraid.

“This is his battle. This is his battle.”

For its part, the BLM released little information once the roundup got underway a week ago, often canceling news conferences at the last minute. Mostly the message was the same: It was seizing Bundy’s cattle because it has repeatedly failed to get Bundy to pony up his debt or suffer the consequences.

The Bundy ranch itself, where cattle operations have existed since the late 1800s, became a fortified compound overnight, courtesy of militias who came from throughout the West to protect Bundy from what they perceived as “government tyranny.”

Locals who make a living on the range and own horses showed up on horseback.

Nearly all of them defended Bundy’s actions and spoke about how tired they were of the federal government micromanaging Americans, including passing too many regulations, not just in Nevada but across the country; not just in cattle ranching, but in all facets of life, from Obamacare to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Brent Mackelprang, 58, a cattle rancher from Arizona, said the government’s decision to seize Bundy’s cattle in the name of protecting “the supposedly endangered” desert tortoise was a mere excuse “to go in and grab land from the people,” including Bundy, who has long claimed that the land belongs to his family and the state of Nevada — “certainly not to the federal government.”

Mackelprang said the government’s conservation efforts are “nothing but a lie.”

“It’s not about the turtle or the cactus or the spotted owl. This is all about the federal government overstepping its bounds like it always does and thinking it owns the world,” Mackelprang said. “Well, we’re here to say that it doesn’t. But if you’re a rancher and you’re living on the Colorado Plateau, then you’re going to need some luck to make a living.”

Environmentalists, who have worked years to get Bundy to pull out his cattle, were disheartened by BLM’s decision to pull back and cede to protester demands.

Rob Mrowka, an ecologist with Nevada’s Center for Biological Diversity, said Bundy has been hurting the desert tortoise and living free off the land for decades. It was Mrowka’s organization that sued in federal court to kick-start the government into protecting the land and the tortoise.

He said the government is now giving in to “an armed anarchist group.”

The Gold Butte land is supposed to be for the tortoises, who have been displaced from their natural habitat by development in the valley, he said.

“He’s got his cows trespassing,” he added.

Mrowka feels for the frustrated federal agents with whom he has talked.

“They’re trying to uphold the law and do what’s right for the land, but their leaders have pulled the carpet out from under them again,” he said.

Gillespie, flanked by several deputies, announced the BLM breakthrough to hundreds of Bundy supporters Saturday morning.

“The Gold Butte allotment will be reopened to the public,” the sheriff said, referring to the land. “And BLM will be removing their assets here in Clark County. What I would hope is to sit down with you and talk about how that is facilitated in a safe way. We may not have always agreed, but we have been respectful of each other’s opinion and to the process. And that’s why I’m here: to start that with you and to advise you of that.”

BLM Director Neil Kornze said in a statement Saturday, “Based on information about conditions on the ground, and in consultation with law enforcement, we have made a decision to conclude the cattle gather because of our serious concern about the safety of employees and members of the public.”

Just afterward, rancher Bundy demanded that Gillespie disarm all National Park Service employees who work on federal lands, saying that the land belongs to the people and that they should not have to endure federally armed agents while enjoying tourist sites such as Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area.

He gave Gillespie one hour to comply with the orders, telling the sheriff he would like to see the federal workers’ firearms brought to the rally. Gillespie didn’t comment on the request.

Some called out political figures for not being present for the battle.

“Sandoval, Reid, Heller, Heck — who do you support?” one sign read, referring to Gov. Brian Sandoval, U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev.

Sandoval released a statement Saturday morning via email saying safety was his highest priority and that he appreciated the BLM for listening to people’s concerns.

Gubernatorial candidate David Lory VanDerBeek and Assembly candidate Howard Scheff from Nevada’s Independent American Party held an afternoon rally in Las Vegas to show their support for Bundy.

People stood in front of the federal courthouse on Las Vegas Boulevard with signs reading “BLM GO AWAY” and “HONK 4 FREEDOM.” About 20 people gathered to hear the candidates speak on the matter.

“The state government is responsible for protecting Bundy’s individual rights,” VanDerBeek said.

But VanDerBeek was not advocating for a confrontation between militia men and federal agents. “They need to stop fighting each other,” he said, adding that there is a greater threat. “We’re all bitches to the banks.”

All of the candidates questioned the agencies’ motives and proposed that solar energy stations and oil fracking were likely reasons for the federal government to make a “land-grab.”

Back in Bunkerville, Ammon Bundy, Cliven Bundy’s son who was shot with a stun gun by BLM officers earlier this past week, was near tears as he described how BLM agents came in, took backhoes to the land and shut down water lines to prevent the cattle from drinking.

He said that a possible deal to stop the roundup for good wouldn’t have been a possibility had it not been for the people.

“The people have the power when they unite,” Ammon Bundy said. “The war has just begun.”

He said there were snipers in the hills and armed guards all around, but that the people successfully pushed them back. “We sent them packing.”

Reporters Ben Botkin, Henry Brean, Laura Myers, Wesley Juhl and photojournalist Jason Bean contributed to this report. Contact reporter Tom Ragan at tragan@reviewjournal.com. Contact reporter Annalise Porter at aporter@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0391.

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