LAS VEGAS — Nevada’s governor criticized a federal cattle roundup and what he calls “intimidation” in a dispute with a rural rancher who claims longstanding grazing rights on remote public rangeland about 80 miles northeast of Las Vegas.
On Wednesday, officials from the federal Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service didn’t immediately respond to Gov. Brian Sandoval’s call for the BLM to “reconsider its approach and act accordingly” in the ongoing roundup of about 900 cattle roaming a vast area about half the size of the state of Delaware.
“No cow justifies the atmosphere of intimidation which currently exists nor the limitation of constitutional rights that are sacred to all Nevadans,” Sandoval said in a statement released after business hours Tuesday.
The showdown pits Cliven Bundy’s claims of ancestral rights to graze his cows on open range against federal claims that the cattle are trespassing on arid and fragile habitat of the endangered desert tortoise.
Bundy has said he owns about 500 branded cattle on the range, and he claims the others are also his.
The Republican governor weighed in after several days of news coverage and radio talk show commentary about blocked roads and armed federal agents fanning out around Bundy’s ranch while contractors using helicopters and vehicles herd cows into portable pens in rugged and remote areas.
Sandoval’s comments came the same day the U.S. Senate confirmed Neil Kornze, a Nevada native, as the new BLM director. Kornze is a natural resource manager who grew up in Elko and served previously as a senior adviser to Senate Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Sandoval is a former state attorney general and federal district court judge in a state with deep roots in states’ rights disputes including the Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s and ’80s. Nevada was among Western states where ranchers challenged federal ownership of land they said was theirs.
The governor said he was most offended that armed federal officials have tried to corral people protesting the roundup into a fenced-in “First Amendment area” south of the resort city of Mesquite.
The site “tramples upon Nevadans’ fundamental rights under the U.S. Constitution” and should be dismantled, Sandoval said.
BLM spokeswoman Kirsten Cannon and Park Service spokeswoman Christie Vanover have told reporters during daily conference calls that free-speech areas were established so agents could ensure the safety of contractors, protesters, the rancher and his supporters.
The current roundup covers a dusty, windswept 1,200-square-mile area dotted with hardy mesquite and yucca, wispy cheatgrass and scenic rock formations north of the Lake Mead reservoir.
The dispute between Bundy and the federal government dates to 1993, when land managers cited concern for the federally protected tortoise and capped Bundy’s herd at 150 animals on a 250-square-mile rangeland allotment.
BLM spokeswoman Cannon said Bundy has racked up more than $1.1 million in unpaid grazing fees while disregarding several federal court orders to remove his animals.
Bundy estimates the unpaid fees total about $300,000. He notes that his Mormon family’s 19th century melon farm in the Virgin River bottomland and ranch operation in surrounding areas predates creation of the federal Bureau of Land Management in 1946.
BLM and Park Service officials see threats in Bundy’s promise to “do whatever it takes” to protect his property, and in his characterization that the dispute constitutes a “range war.”
But since the cattle roundup began Saturday, there has been one arrest.
Bundy’s son, Dave Bundy, 37, was taken into custody Sunday as he watched the roundup from State Route 170. He was released Monday with bruises on his face and a citation accusing him of refusing to disperse and resisting arrest. A court date has not been set.
His mother, Carol Bundy, alleged that her son was roughed up by BLM police.
Meanwhile, federal officials say 277 cows have been collected since Saturday in the rangeland that has been closed to the public through May 12. A roundup contract totals $966,000.
Cannon said state veterinarian and brand identification officials will determine what becomes of the impounded cattle.