Feds play waiting game at Nevada ranch

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Federal officials appear to be waiting out Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and his supporters.

Two days after a dispute over grazing rights, cattle and $1 million in fees and fines threatened to spin into a Wild West shootout, officials with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) promised they weren’t finished with Bundy.

“The BLM will continue to work to resolve the matter administratively and judicially,” BLM Director Neil Kornze said in a statement that followed the bureau’s decision to release nearly 400 head of Bundy’s cattle that had been seized as part of a fight over grazing fees.

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Spokesman Craig Leff declined to be more specific.

States rights supporters, including some armed militia members, stormed to Bundy’s aid in the last week amid a confrontation that had been building for more than two decades. It had provoked fears of a violent standoff like the 1993 standoff in Waco, Texas, that ended with the burning of the Branch Davidian compound that killed 76 people.

Gov. Brian Sandoval (R-Nev.) last week said the BLM operation was a violation of Nevadans’ rights.

"Most disturbing to me is the BLM’s establishment of a ‘First Amendment Area’ that tramples upon Nevadans’ fundamental rights under the U.S. Constitution," he said in a statement.

The government says Bundy’s cattle have been trespassing on and grazing on federal land for 20 years. They say Bundy hasn’t paid for a grazing permit since a dispute that began in 1993 over protections for the desert tortoise, when the government first sought to make Bundy pay.

The agency has obtained numerous court orders mandating that Bundy stop using the land.

Bundy doesn’t recognize the federal government’s authority over the land, which his cattle have grazed upon for decades. He has asserted that his family has used the land as a ranch for generations, before BLM existed.

The rancher, his family and supporters have also cried foul at what they see as unnecessary force from federal officials and contractors, including carrying guns and allegedly assaulting protesters.

Bundy did not return requests for comment.

Observers say the government would be smart to wait for the dust to settle, and then to try to resolve the situation.

“It’s a very prudent strategy for the government to say ‘we’re going to let this go for now, but we’re going to revisit it,’ ” said James McCarthy, a professor of political geography at Clark University.

“They can afford to play the long game,” said McCarthy, who suggested the government could wait six months or longer for its next action.

Jonathan Emord, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney specializing in disputes over federal land, predicted that the government will move to the courts for the next battle.

“They’ll press charges against him in federal court, and they’ll try to basically bleed his ability to defend himself, and beat him up on technical grounds,” Emord said. “They’ll put him in a situation where he’ll end up with a determination of liability that would be so great that he would have to sell his ranch to them to extinguish his debt.”

McCarthy said the dispute can be linked to federal government decisions in the late 19th century to keep large swaths of land in public ownership while allowing private citizens to use the land for various reasons.

“When our federal land system was set up, it was completely understood and accepted and part of the design that the private landowners … would have really extensive access to and use of public lands,” McCarthy said.

One of BLM’s predecessors, the Grazing Service, was established to manage the land that had been set aside for livestock grazing. Though the federal government owned the land, it always had a system to allow grazing.

“There’s a long history of federal allowance of trespass,” Emord said.

The land management also was put in place in order to encourage settlers to move to the remote areas and use it for purposes like ranching, logging and gold exploration.

“Here you have the law inviting people to settle in the West,” he said. “You create populations out there who are then dependent on the business that you invited as the federal government.”

But in the latter half of the 20th century, as the country become more aware of its effects on the environment, the government’s priorities moved away from providing economic benefits through its land and more toward conservation.

“They are not wrong that the system that was set up really explicitly with the understanding that it would be used for commodity production and economic purposes,” McCarthy said. “The rules and the priorities shifted on them somewhat quickly.”

Emord said restrictions on land use, such as grazing fees, sprung up in the 1990s. Since those restrictions devalue people’s livelihoods and businesses, they amount to taking of property, Emord said.

“It destroys the economic value of the ranch without just compensation,” he said.

--This report was updated at 7:50 a.m.