WASHINGTON — A public land advocacy group sued the Bureau of Land Management on Thursday to make public documents on the agency’s handling of the armed standoff with Southern Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy.
The suit was filed by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which said its requests for Bundy-related information filed under the Freedom of Information Act have been ignored.
PEER said it also has been unable to obtain the BLM’s accounting of threats and attacks against employees in 2013, after the agency previously released its tabulations annually since 1996.
Advocates said there is growing concern for the safety of federal land workers in a strained atmosphere illustrated by the tense April standoff between authorities and armed protesters in Bunkerville, and reported threats against government agents elsewhere in the region.
“Parts of the Sagebrush West are beginning to resemble Eastern Ukraine,” said PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that BLM secretiveness is fueling conspiracy theories on the range.
“To tamp down the rumor mill fueling these high-profile incidents, the BLM should be communicating more with the public, not less,” Ruch said.
The complaint filed in the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., seeks documents related to the BLM’s April 12 decision to halt the roundup of Bundy cattle in the Gold Butte area 80 miles northeast of Las Vegas.
The BLM called off the exercise and allowed cattle to be returned to Bundy after its wranglers and Clark County sheriff’s deputies were confronted by armed Bundy supporters belonging to militias and protest groups.
The agency was enforcing a court judgment that found the cattle to be trespassing on federal land, the latest finding in a long dispute between Bundy and the government over grazing rights.
The Las Vegas Review-Journal has similarly been unable to obtain information on the roundup from the BLM.
Review-Journal General Counsel Mark Hinueber said the newspaper is reviewing its options after the BLM rejected as too vague an April 13 Freedom of Information Act request seeking emails from key officials involved with the roundup of Bundy’s cattle.
“Because of the broad and general nature of your request, we are unable to identify which records are being sought,” wrote an unnamed BLM records-request specialist in a May 9 “clarification” letter to the Review-Journal.
The FOIA request submitted the day after the standoff that spurred release of Bundy’s cattle sought emails pertaining to the roundup events from April 1 through April 13 that contained the names of various federal and state officials as well as Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie.
The Review-Journal filed another FOIA request on April 13 seeking copies of BLM expense records including those for the helicopter roundup and aerial surveys of cattle in the Gold Butte area. The BLM has not yet provided those records.
Besides documents that might shed light on the decision to call off the roundup and return Bundy cattle, the PEER lawsuit seeks to learn how many criminal referrals the BLM made to the Department of Justice arising from the confrontation.
In an interview on National Public Radio in May, BLM Director Neil Kornze said lawbreakers would be “held accountable.”
Kornze said the agency, unable to carry out the roundup, planned to act through the courts to enforce the court directive. There has been no sign of BLM activity on the matter.
PEER also wants to know whether BLM advised managers on how to handle similar incidents, in which they are confronted with armed resistance when they carry out lawful orders, and if BLM employees have been cautioned about their personal safety.
Several weeks after the Bundy standoff, two motorists flashed a gun and made a threatening hand sign at a federal wrangler driving along a highway in Utah, the Salt Lake Tribune reported. The threat prompted BLM workers to strip the agency logos from their vehicles. The agency also has directed employees to stop wearing uniforms 0r insignia and advises against traveling alone, according to PEER.
BLM spokeswoman Celia Boddington said the agency could not comment on the lawsuit, and referred questions about it to the Justice Department.
“However we are working within the legal system to ensure that those who broke the law are held accountable; the safety of government employees continues to be our top priority.”
Review-Journal writer Keith Rogers contributed to this report. Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at STetreault@stephensmedia.com or 202-783-1760. Find him on Twitter: @STetreaultDC.