A standoff between U.S. officials and hundreds of armed protesters in the high desert of Nevada ended on Saturday when the government called off the roundup of cattle it said were illegally grazing on federal land.
The dispute between rancher Cliven Bundy and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management had simmered for days, with anti-government groups, right-wing politicians and gun-rights activists camping around Bundy’s ranch to support him.
The bureau had called in a team of armed rangers to Nevada to seize the 1,000 head of cattle on Saturday but backed down in the interests of safety.
“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,” the bureau’s director, Neil Kornze, said in a statement.
While the protesters met the news with applause at first, they quickly advanced on the metal pens where the cattle confiscated earlier in the week were being held. Some chanted “open that gate” and “free the people,” while others took up positions on an interstate highway overlooking the standoff.
A man who identified himself only as Scott, 43, said he had traveled from Idaho along with two friends he described as fellow militia members to show support for Bundy.
“If we don’t show up everywhere, there is no reason to show up anywhere,” said the man, dressed in camouflage pants and a black flak jacket.
He crouched behind a concrete highway barrier, holding an AR-15 rifle.
“I’m ready to pull the trigger if fired upon,” Scott said.
Members of the Bundy family could be seen talking with bureau officials and later told journalists and supporters that the bureau had agreed to release the cattle that had already been herded up later in the day.
“This is what I prayed for,” said Margaret Houston, one of Bundy’s sisters. “We are so proud of the American people for being here with us and standing with us.”
Members of the crowd began to drift away from the pens as the news traveled through the group.
“We won the battle,” said Ammon Bundy, one of the rancher’s sons.
Bureau of Land Management officials did not immediately respond to calls seeking comment.
The dispute has tapped into long-simmering anger in Nevada and other big Western states rooted in the fact that vast tracts of land in those states are owned and governed by federal agencies.
The dispute between Bundy and federal land managers began in 1993 when he stopped paying fees of about $1.35 per cow-calf pair to graze public lands that are also home to imperiled animals such as the Mojave Desert tortoise. The government also claims Bundy has ignored cancellation of his grazing leases and defied federal court orders to remove his cattle.
Hundreds of Bundy supporters, some heavily armed, had camped on the road leading to his ranch in a high desert spotted with sagebrush and mesquite trees. Some held signs reading “Americans united against government thugs,” while others were calling the rally the “Battle of Bunkerville,” a reference to a American Revolutionary War battle of Bunker Hill in Boston.
In an interview prior the bureau’s announcement, Bundy said he was impressed by the level of support he had received.
“I’m excited that we are really fighting for our freedom. We’ve been losing it for a long time,” Bundy said.