LAS VEGAS — The tense face-off over a Nevada rancher’s right to graze his cattle on federal land has spilled over into a public squabble after the Bureau of Land Management and Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie issued conflicting statements over their lack of cooperation in an armed federal raid in April at Bundy’s high-desert ranch.
But both agencies agree on one thing: that Bundy and his family overstepped their legal rights by hosting the armed militia on that Saturday in April and should be held accountable.
In a statement released Monday to the Los Angeles Times, the BLM expressed its dismay that Gillespie had declined at the 11th hour to support federal agents as they moved in to round up hundreds of cattle officials say Bundy had grazed on federal land for decades without paying the required fees.
After collecting some cattle, the BLM backed off and released the animals when it was confronted by hundreds of citizen militiamen, some armed with semiautomatic rifles, who had rallied to Bundy’s defense, saying his rights as a U.S. citizen had been abridged by arriving “federal armies.”
Last week, Gillespie said federal officials escalated an already tense standoff by ignoring his advice to delay the roundup. He told the Las Vegas Review-Journal newspaper that Bundy was not a criminal, but merely a rancher who stopped paying his fees, and that the disagreement was not worth the risk of violence.
“They said, ‘We do this all the time. We know what we’re doing. We hear what you’re saying, but we’re moving forward.’” Gillespie told the newspaper.
Federal officials deny the allegation, saying that the BLM moved forward with Gillespie’s support until he withdrew it at the last minute.
“It is unfortunate that the sheriff is now attempting to rewrite the details of what occurred. The sheriff encouraged the operation and promised to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with us as we enforced two recent federal court orders,” the statement said. “Sadly, he backed out of his commitment shortly before the operation – and after months of joint planning – leaving the BLM and the National Park Service to handle the crowd control that the sheriff previously committed to handling.”
In the face of Bundy’s armed supporters, the BLM, citing safety concerns, released 380 cattle collected during a weeklong operation from a wide swath of publicly administered land about 90 minutes north of Las Vegas.
Yet both Gillespie and the BLM say Bundy should be held legally accountable for his actions.
“If you step over that line, there are consequences to those actions,” Gillespie told the Review-Journal. “And I believe they stepped over that line. No doubt about it. They need to be held accountable for it.”
Gillespie did not respond to a request for an interview Monday.
In its statement, the BLM insisted the agency continues to pursue the matter “aggressively through the legal system.”
“There is an ongoing investigation and we are working diligently to ensure that those who broke the law are held accountable,” according to the statement.
The agency says Bundy owes more than $1 million in fees and penalties for trespassing on federal property without a permit over 20 years. Bundy insists his ancestors began ranching the area even before the creation of the BLM.
He says he refuses to acknowledge federal authority on public lands.
In an interview with the Times on Monday, Bundy said he blamed Gillespie and Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval for their refusal to protect his rights against what he termed federal invaders.
He also denied that his supporters pointed weapons at anyone.
“All these people keep a hollerin’ and making lots of noise that Cliven Bundy and his followers pointed guns at people and that is just not true,” he told the Times. “Look at the pictures and all the video taken that day. You find one gun that was pointed at any police officer and I will identify that person.”
He said federal agents were the ones pointing guns.
“And that makes Cliven Bundy mad. The sheriff and his SWAT team and the governor and his Highway Patrol, they joined the feds in pointing guns at we the people. We might have had one or two people lined up in position to protect the people, but that’s what they should have been doing. They were not, however, pointing loaded weapons at anyone in particular.”
Over the last two years, since a similar federal threat to round up his cattle, Bundy said he had met with Gillespie for a total of 10 hours, arguing his point that the county needed to defends his rights against the BLM.
Just two days before the Saturday showdown, Bundy said, he went to Gillespie’s office to once again beg for his support to keep agents from rounding up his herd.
Bundy said he asked the county’s chief law enforcement officer to sign a card supporting his rights to run his cattle on public land.
Gillespie refused. “He said he was going to be neutral,” Bundy said.
Some two dozen armed militia members remain on his property, Bundy said, and he has been assured by his followers that “they could have thousands more in a matter of hours.”
“The county, state and federal government broke the law by not honoring my rights to beneficial use of this land,” he said. “They didn’t give me due process. They just brought in their armies.”
The rancher, who has represented himself in court in hearings over the grazing rights, said he has a Las Vegas lawyer who is amassing a legal team to defend him if the federal government moves forward in any civil or criminal charges.
He added that he’s willing to take his battle over individual rights all the way to the Supreme Court.
“If the government says they are out to get me, I say, ‘Come when you’re ready,’” he said. “I don’t know what else to tell them. Legally, both myself and the militia are standing on firm ground.”
He added, “I’d say I’ll wait here until the cows come home. But they’re already home.”