Federal agents and contractors returned Cliven Bundy’s cattle Saturday, de-escalating the days-long armed stand-off. US officials from the Bureau of Land Management returned 400 head of cattle to the 67-year-old rancher in the interest 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.
Hundreds of protesters had camped on the road leading to Bundy’s ranch, holding signs like “Americans united against government thugs,” according to Reuters. Protesters have been gathering from all over the country since the BLM began rounding up Cliven Bundy’s cattle last week, citing a 2013 court order and two decades of unpaid grazing fines.
In an interview earlier this week, Cliven Bundy said he was being harassed by the federal government for refusing to sell his ranch and that he does not recognize the BLM’s claim to Gold Butte, saying that his ancestors’ cattle have been grazing there since before the agency existed.
Many of the protesters were armed and tensions have been high. Federal agents had set up “free speech” zones and have been using K9 units and tasers to intimidate protesters outside of these zones. Several protesters had been arrested walking along the interstate and Cliven’s son Dave Bundy was arrested last Sunday, then released the next day. The family has even faced snipers as the conflict escalated, and many feared a Ruby-Ridge-style conclusion.
Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval condemned the federal government’s actions and asking the agency to “reconsider its approach.”
Kornze now says that “Safety has always been our number one priority, and the Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service appreciate the support of those who called for a peaceful conclusion to the operation.”
“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.”
“We won the battle,” said Cliven’s son, Ammon Bundy, who broke through the federal barricade Thursday to retrieve 30 head of cattle.
Contractors working for BLM began rounding up the cattle a week ago, hoping to capture 900 head of cattle grazing on the federally owned public land. The armed federal agents were supposedly deployed to protect the contractors conducting the round-up. Protesters allege that cows and calves may have died from the rapid round-up by the government. Protesters also believe that some of the Bundy cattle have been transported out of Nevada to be sold out of state.
The BLM stopped issuing permits for cattle to graze on Gold Butte in 1998 over concern for the federally protected desert tortoise. Last year Cliven Bundy was ordered to remove his cattle from the public land, where his family has been grazing their cattle since the 1800s.
“Years ago, I used to have 52 neighboring ranchers,” he told FoxNews. “I’m the last man standing. How come? Because BLM regulated these people off the land and out of business.” Cliven Bundy stopped paying grazing fees in 1993 because he does not recognize the federal government’s claim to the 600,000 acres.
“I have raised cattle on that land, which is public land for the people of Clark County, all my life. Why I raise cattle there and why I can raise cattle there is because I have preemptive rights.”
Cliven Bundy owes the Bureau about $1 million which the BLM will now pursue through the court system, rather than by confiscating his cattle. Although the issue of rights remains in contention, the armed stand-off has been ended peacefully by BLM’s removal of its federal agents.
Republican Governor Sandoval said in a statement on Saturday that “Given the circumstances, today’s outcome is the best we could have hoped for.”