A turf battle between a southern Nevada rancher and federal land managers has escalated after authorities said they plan to round up cattle that have been allowed to graze for decades on remote public land northeast of Las Vegas.
Cliven Bundy of Bunkerville said Friday he watched a caravan of federal Bureau of Land Management agents and hired hands move equipment past his melon farm and onto the public land, and said he planned to keep fighting to keep grazing in the Gold Butte area.
He has vowed, in his words, to do "whatever it takes" to keep the U.S. Bureau of Land Management from impounding the hundreds of cattle grazing on rangeland where his family has lived since 1877.
"Tell them Bundy's ready," he told Las Vegas Review-Journal.
The BLM posted notice Tuesday that officials plan to collect "illegal trespass cattle" without further notice from more than 900 square miles of hardscrabble land about 80 miles northeast of Las Vegas.
The scenic but harsh area, located south of Mesquite and east of the Virgin River, is dotted with mesquite, yucca, dry brown cheat grass and stunning rock formations. The arid hills are crisscrossed by washboard dirt roads and controlled by the BLM and National Park Service.
The area includes 288,000 acres of BLM land, 34,000 acres of National Park Service land in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area and 17,000 acres controlled by the federal Bureau of Reclamation.
Conservationists have called for making the Gold Butte area a national monument.
The last time federal authorities announced plans to remove Bundy's livestock, in April 2012, he refused to budge.
He represented himself and lost two federal court rulings since then, including an order last October by U.S. District Judge Larry Hicks prohibiting Bundy from physically interfering with any seizure or impound operation.
Kirsten Cannon, a BLM spokeswoman in Las Vegas, said Friday that the bureau and park service were finally moving to resolve the long-standing dispute.
Details of the roundup haven't been announced, but there won't be any further notice, the BLM posting said.
"BLM and NPS have made repeated attempts to resolve this matter administratively and judicially," the notice said. "Neither the court orders nor agency communications have gained the voluntary removal of the trespass cattle from federal lands."
Cannon said Bundy also owes more than $300,000 in accumulated trespass and administrative fees.
Bundy's dispute with the government dates to 1993, when land managers cited concern for the federally protected desert tortoise and capped Bundy's herd on the 158,666-acre Bunkerville allotment at 150 animals.
Bundy protested by withholding his monthly grazing fees of about $2 per animal, but kept using the range.
The BLM canceled his grazing permit in 1994. A federal court in 1998 ordered him to remove the animals, and federal authorities in 1999 officially closed the Bunkerville allotment to cattle.
A BLM helicopter survey last December tallied 568 cattle in a 90-mile swath of federal land in the Gold Butte area. Officials think there could be more, because a March 2011 aerial survey tallied 903 animals, including more than 300 in areas the bureau said couldn't be reached by teams on the ground.
Rob Mrowka, a scientist with the Tucson, Ariz.-based Center for Biological Diversity, called the ongoing dispute an outrage and the cattle a threat to the tortoises.
"It's high time for the BLM to do its job and give the tortoises and the Gold Butte area the protection they need and are legally entitled to," Mrowka told the Review-Journal.
Officials think more than 1 in 3 of the cattle roaming the range today may be unmarked descendants of Bundy's branded animals.
Bundy says they're all his property.
He sent out letters this week declaring a "range war emergency," demanding protection from state and local officials and threatening legal action against contract cowboys the government hires for a roundup.
"I'm protecting my rights as a rancher, and I'm also protecting the rights of all Clark County residents to access and policing power over this land," he said.
Nevada Department of Agriculture spokesman Bob Conrad said the state's only role would be to provide brand inspectors to examine animals to try to establish ownership, as required by Nevada law and federal court order. Unbranded cattle could become state property to be sold at auction, Conrad said.
The Nevada Cattlemen's Association planned to discuss the dispute at a special meeting next week, association President Ron Torell said.
Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie said he met with Bundy several times since 2012, including several weeks ago when it became clear that no compromise would stop federal action.
Gillespie said the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, which patrols rural Clark County, has no role in a roundup of cattle on federal land under the supervision of federal law enforcement agents.
"I hope calmer heads will prevail like they normally do," the sheriff said. "You're talking about rounding up cattle. You have to keep that in perspective."