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Citing safety concerns, BLM calls off cattle roundup

Feds release all cows gathered

Range Wars

Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times / MCT

Rancher Cliven Bundy walks on land his family has worked since the 1880s on August 20, 2013, in Bunkerville, Nevada. Bundy is battling the Bureau of Land Management over grazing rights.

Updated Saturday, April 12, 2014 | 7:18 p.m.

The campaign to round up Cliven Bundy’s cattle has been canceled.

The Bureau of Land Management announced today that federal agents would conclude their one-month operation to seize the 900 cattle roaming on federally owned land about 75 miles northeast of Las Vegas.

Additionally, federal land managers confirmed they released all 400 head of Bundy's cattle from corrals outside Mesquite.

The BLM took the action Saturday afternoon after hundreds of states' rights protesters, including militia and Tea Party members, showed up at corrals outside Mesquite to demand the animals' return to Bundy.

The bureau issued a brief statement saying the cattle were released "due to escalating tensions."

Some protesters were armed with handguns and rifles, but there were no reports of shots fired or injuries.

“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,” BLM Director Neil Kornze said in a statement.

“We ask that all parties in the area remain peaceful and law-abiding as the Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service work to end the operation in an orderly manner,” he said.

Clark County Sheriff Douglas Gillespie helped mediate the agreement between the Bundy family and the BLM, according to a Metro Police press release.

Business owners in Mesquite had received threats related to the dispute, according to the release.

“I want to stress to all of you that as the sheriff of Clark County, I cannot interfere with the federal government when it is operating on federal land,” Gillespie said in a statement. “And because this is BLM property, it is in their jurisdiction. But when a group of protesters threaten civil unrest or violence in this county — it is my job to step in and ensure the safety of citizens.”

Officers will remain in Bunkerville and the Mesquite area through the weekend, Metro said.

A scuffle between the BLM and Bundy’s supporters broke out earlier this week when agents subdued Bundy’s son with a stun gun and knocked his daughter to the ground.

The incident prompted a visit from Operation Mutual Aid — a national militia with members from California to Missouri. The militiamen said they set up a camp just in case things got out of hand again.

Before the BLM pulled the plug on its operation, dozens of Bundy’s supporters and relatives protested at an encampment.

The BLM, meanwhile, says the fight is far from over.

“The BLM will continue to work to resolve the matter administratively and judicially,” Kornze said.

Bundy didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

Gov. Brian Sandoval, who had complained about the BLM's handling of the roundup, issued a statement praising the agency for its willingness to listen to the state's concerns.

Nevada's congressional delegation urged the protesters to be calm and to leave the area.

"The dispute is over, the BLM is leaving, but emotions and tensions are still near the boiling point, and we desperately need a peaceful conclusion to this conflict," U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., said in a statement. "I urge all the people involved to please return to your homes and allow the BLM officers to collect their equipment and depart without interference."

Some 400 cows were gathered during the roundup that began a week ago, short of the BLM's goal of 900 cows that it says have been trespassing on U.S. land without required grazing permits for over 20 years.

The fight between Bundy and the BLM has widened into a debate about states' rights and federal land-use policy. The bureau revoked Bundy's grazing rights after he stopped paying grazing fees and disregarded federal court orders to remove his animals.

Bundy, 67, doesn't recognize federal authority on land he insists belongs to Nevada. His Mormon family has operated a ranch near the tiny community of Bunkerville since the 1870s near Mesquite a few miles from the Utah line.

"Good morning America, good morning world, isn't it a beautiful day in Bunkerville?" Bundy told a cheering crowd after Saturday's announcements were made, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

The crowd protesting Saturday recited the pledge of allegiance, and many offered prayers. Others waved placards reading, "This land is your land," and "We teach our children not to bully. How do we teach our government not to be big bullies?" according to the Review-Journal.

It's the latest skirmish since the 1980s when the Sagebrush Rebellion challenged federal ownership of Nevada rangeland ranchers said was rightfully theirs.

A federal judge in Las Vegas first ordered Bundy to remove his trespassing cattle in 1998. The bureau was implementing two federal court orders last year to remove Bundy's cattle after making repeated efforts to resolve the matter outside court, Kornze said, adding the rancher has not paid grazing fees in 20 years.

"This is a matter of fairness and equity, and we remain disappointed that Cliven Bundy continues to not comply with the same laws that 16,000 public-lands ranchers do every year," Kornze said. "After 20 years and multiple court orders to remove the trespass cattle, Mr. Bundy owes the American taxpayers in excess of $1 million. The BLM will continue to work to resolve the matter administratively and judicially."

Sun reporter Bethany Barnes and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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