Safety concerns for people involved with rounding up hundreds of renegade cattle belonging to Bunkerville rancher Cliven Bundy prompted the Bureau of Land Management to suspend indefinitely its plan to impound the herd, the local BLM manager said Wednesday.
"Our goal has always been to get these cattle off public lands in a safe way," said Mary Jo Rugwell, manager of the BLM's Southern Nevada District Office.
She said the BLM's Washington, D.C., office, headed by the bureau's former Nevada state director, Bob Abbey, made the decision to postpone this week's roundup to pursue legal proceedings in federal court.
"The bottom line was that because our goal was to do it safely, the BLM decision was made that we need to try the legal avenue again," Rugwell said, noting that "for many years there have been concerns how a gather operation would be received."
Rugwell said her staff has had discussions recently with Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie and Las Vegas police. "We asked for support in making sure everything was safe," she said.
Bundy, 65, said Wednesday that he doesn't perceive himself as a danger to the BLM because he has remained peaceful for 20 years during his feud over grazing cattle in the Gold Butte area.
"I sort of think they're overreacting in one sense, and in the other sense I don't know what indefinitely means," Bundy said by phone in response to Rugwell's comments about suspending the roundup.
"I'm damn tired of their harassment, their unconstitutional jurisdiction. I've fought this battle on paper, in the courts and in the media."
Bundy met with Gillespie twice in the days before he received a certified letter of the BLM's intent to follow through with impounding his herd this week. He said Gillespie called him Tuesday night to inform him that the BLM had decided to suspend the roundup.
"He told me to go ahead and do your ranching," Bundy said. "We're going to keep ranching, and we're going to keep this access open to the public."
When asked about the BLM's roundup Wednesday, Rugwell described it as "suspended indefinitely."
Said Bundy: "This shows how long their word is good."
Rugwell notified Bundy in an April 3 letter that his cattle would be rounded up and impounded because the herd has been roaming for 18 years "without authorization in areas that are closed to grazing" and in violation of a 1998 federal court injunction to stop grazing cattle on public lands.
The letter said Bundy would be contacted after all the cattle had been gathered and he would be allowed to claim any that bear his brand.
After learning that the BLM had forged a contract with Cattoor Livestock Roundup Inc. to gather and impound his cattle, Bundy notified the company and its operators Saturday that "there is a volatile situation currently taking place."
"While Cliven Bundy is not asserting any accusatory statement directly against the Cattoors or their companies as to their being hired to confiscate his property ... Cliven Bundy will do whatever it takes to protect his property and rights and liberty and freedoms and those of, We the People, of Clark County Nevada," his letter said.
The BLM canceled Bundy's grazing permit for the Bunkerville allotment in 1994, but he continued to graze hundreds of hybrid cattle adapted for harsh desert conditions on the much larger Gold Butte range, about 80 miles northeast of Las Vegas.
Bundy estimates he runs 500 adult cattle on 120 square miles, or 76,800 acres.
His permit for the Bunkerville allotment before it was canceled in 1994 allowed him to run about 150 cattle.
Rugwell said the Gold Butte area is roughly 500,000 acres. Her staff counted more than 500 cattle there in March 2011, about 730 in August, and 750 in early April.
The legal action the BLM is contemplating will cover all areas where Bundy's cattle roam, not just the previous Bunkerville allotment that was subject to the 1998 federal court injunction, Rugwell said.
She said the BLM is concerned about resource damage in the area.
"In my mind, the most important issue with respect with trespass is the fact trespass is unfair to other users, like recreationists. They pay fees and follow rules. In my mind it's a fairness issue," she said.
An environmental group, the Center for Biological Diversity, has been tracking the Gold Butte grazing issue and is considering a legal response to the BLM's indefinite halt to its roundup plans, or what the center's Las Vegas spokesman Rob Mrowka described as a "severe administrative setback."
By its lack of action, he said, the BLM continues to allow trespassing cattle to graze on habitat critical to the survival of federally protected desert tortoises and other species covered by Clark County's Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan.
In December 1998, Clark County bought grazing rights to the Bunkerville allotment for $375,000 and retired them for benefit and protection of the threatened desert tortoise.
"On the ground, even though good intentions have been made, nothing is different than before," Mrowka said.
Because the BLM continues to allow renegade cattle to graze in the Gold Butte area, Mrowka said the Center for Biological Diversity is considering sending the BLM a notice of intent to sue over the matter.
Rugwell said her staff had been preparing for the roundup for months.
"We would have liked to have been able to proceed, but we're going to move forward and do whatever we can to get those cattle removed in a safe way," she said.