Land dispute between rancher and government inspires ideological standoff with armed protesters


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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now to a story that takes us out to the Western U.S., to Nevada, where a standoff between the federal government and a local cattle rancher involving an armed militia almost turned violent.

Hari Sreenivasan is in our New York studio with this report.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Armed militiamen pointing guns at federal officials over cattle. For more than 20 years, Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy has refused to pay fees for grazing cattle on public lands, some 80 miles north of Las Vegas.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management says Bundy now owes close to $1 million. He says his family has used the land since the 1870s and doesn’t recognize the federal government’s jurisdiction. Last year, a federal judge ordered Bundy to remove his livestock. He ignored the order, and two weeks ago, BLM agents rounded up more than 400 of his cattle.

Last weekend, armed militia members and states’ right protesters showed up to challenge the move.

FMR. SHERIFF RICHARD MACK, Graham County, AZ: I came here because I don’t believe the BLM has any authority whatsoever. They have no law enforcement authority in Clark County, and they have no business whatsoever destroying the pursuit of happiness of one of our friends and brothers.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Rather than risk violence, the BLM did an about-face and released the cattle. But the dust-up has put longstanding disputes over Western range rights squarely in the spotlight.

Last night, Nevada Democratic Senator Harry Reid blasted the protesters.

SEN. HARRY REID, D, Nev.: So, these people, who hold themselves out to be patriots, are not. They’re nothing more than domestic terrorists. And I think that we are a country that people should follow the law.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The BLM now says it is pursuing a peaceful resolution through the courts.

We’re joined by Ben Botkin from The Las Vegas Review-Journal.

So, Ben, help us understand, how did this escalate into the standoff that it was?

BEN BOTKIN, Las Vegas Review-Journal: Well, the entire situation leading up to the standoff took 20 years, and was 20 years in the making.

You had a couple of court orders that the BLM obtained to obtain the cattle, which that came because Cliven Bundy wasn’t paying his grazing fees. But in the last few days before the standoff, you had a bunch of different types of groups and people, everyone from groups that call themselves militia to so-called patriot groups and just others across the country, gather together over the course of several days leading up to Saturday.

And at that point, Saturday, the Bundy family took the protesters, went up to the corral where the BLM had rounded up their cattle, and after a short and brief negotiation and standoff, the BLM decided to release several hundred cows back to the family.

There’s no formal agreement, but during that standoff, there were guns drawn from both sides. So, rather than run the risk of bloodshed, the agency, at that point, decided to release the cattle.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So how many cattle are we talking about here? They rounded up a few hundred. Did they release them all back?

BEN BOTKIN: They did release them all back. They rounded up about 350 to 400 or so over the course of about a week.

It was intended to be a month-long roundup that would have required gathering a few hundred more cows. That didn’t happen. They stopped the round-off. So now there’s a lot of unanswered questions about what’s going to happen next, because there’s no formal agreement between the BLM and the Bundys for the release of the cows.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So you were out there several days in the last couple of weeks. How many of the people that were out there to protest or to protect Mr. Bundy were aware of the issues with the BLM, and how many were there for their own sort of philosophical purposes, not recognizing the federal government?

BEN BOTKIN: I would say the vast majority was there more for the broader philosophical stance.

They weren’t necessarily familiar with BLM or ranching issues. They were more there because of their agreement with Mr. Bundy, who has the expressed opinion that the federal government is overstepping its bounds and somehow infringing on his constitutional rights.

So a lot of groups seized on him and looked at him as the figurehead for not just ranching or not just grazing, but just these broader issues that they adhere to.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Are there still protesters out there?

BEN BOTKIN: When I was out there a couple of days ago, there were about a couple dozen protesters. So, what once numbered in the hundreds is now down to just a handful.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And then what are we talking about in terms of cash? How much does Mr. Bundy actually owe?

BEN BOTKIN: According to the agency, he owes a little over $1 million in grazing fees, and that’s a figure that’s accumulated over the last 20 or so years since he stopped paying them.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And what about the local authorities? What are they planning to do in the next week or two?

BEN BOTKIN: Well, the local authorities have not given any indication of what they will be doing, if anything.

The local police were at the scene where the standoff was, so that they did have a hand in helping the event reach its conclusion. So, at this point, things are really kind of in flux. The Bundys have indicated that the BLM has sent four certified letters to them that they have chosen not to open at this point.

The BLM hasn’t said what’s in those letters, so, at this point, things are pretty — it’s pretty unpredictable at this point.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Ben Botkin from The Las Vegas Review-Journal, thanks so much.

BEN BOTKIN: Thank you.

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