NEVADA (CNN, April 12, 2014)- Citing public safety concerns, U.S. officials put an early end Saturday to a week-long roundup of a Nevada rancher’s illegally grazing cattle on federal land, which became an Old West-style controversy drawing armed militia groups to the cattleman’s side.
“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,” said Neil Kornze, director of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
Kornze was just confirmed to the directorship this week by the U.S. Senate.
He said that contracted wranglers and U.S. rangers apparently made enough progress in rounding up cattle that belonged to rancher Cliven Bundy, who is challenging federal authority in a valley that his family settled in the Wild West era of the 1800s.
The roundup occurred near the scenic Virgin River valley at Bunkerville, where Bundy’s ranch is located, about 80 miles northeast of Las Vegas.
“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,” Kornze said in a statement.
“After one week, we have made progress in enforcing two recent court orders to remove the trespass cattle from public lands that belong to all Americans,” Kornze said.
He was referring to how two different federal judges ordered the removal of Bundy’s cattle, which has been illegally grazing on federal land for 20 years.
Bundy owes the U.S. government more than $1 million in unpaid grazing fees, bureau officials said.
Bundy’s dispute with the government began around 1993 when the bureau changed grazing rules for the 600,000-acre Gold Butte area to protect an endangered desert tortoise, CNN affiliate KLAS reported.
Bundy, who’s in his 60s, cites the Constitution in asserting that the state of Nevada holds sovereignty over the charging of grazing fees and, if he owes such a fee, he would pay it only to the local government — not to the feds.
Bundy also contends his family has been ranching in the Virgin Valley on the Nevada range since 1877 — long before the U.S. Bureau of Land Management even existed and before the tortoise was declared endangered.
In recent days, the number of cattle rounded up on U.S. lands slowed to one or two dozen a day, according to bureau figures.
From March 5 to Friday, authorities impounded a total of 389 cattle, the Bureau of Land Management said.
Officials gathered 12 head of cattle Friday and 25 Thursday, the bureau said.
Bundy has said he owns 500 of the more than 900 cattle that federal officials are planning to confiscate for illegal grazing, according to local media accounts, with each head worth about $1,000.
The rancher couldn’t be immediately reached for comment Saturday after the feds shut down the roundup.
On Wednesday, a scuffle between protesters and federal rangers was videotaped.
Bundy family members and their supporters confronted the rangers and angrily told them to leave Nevada. Fearing that the cattle were being killed in the roundup, they also demanded to know why a backhoe and dump truck was being used, but federal officials later said the equipment was used to restore the range.
For their part, federal rangers held Tasers and barking dogs on leashes during the faceoff.
Federal officials say a police dog was kicked and officers were assaulted.
Bundy family members say they were thrown to the ground or jolted with a Taser.
In the end, the rangers got into their white SUVs and drove away, a YouTube video of the incident showed.
The incident is under federal investigation.
Several armed militia groups from around the country then joined the Bundys in their showdown.