AUSTIN — As brightly colored signs protested the potential of “stolen cattle” being sold at R Livestock Connection during an April 2 petition outside the facility north of Austin, Sevier County was thrust into the center of a decades old battle between a Nevada cattle rancher and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

Since the 1990s, Bunkerville rancher Cliven Bundy has been involved in what Bundy has termed a “range war” with the BLM over cattle grazing rights on public lands in Clark County, Nev. Bundy asserts the BLM is stealing his cattle from his property, while the BLM insists the cattle have been in trespass and they intend to impound the cows, which are set to be sold at public auction at R Livestock Connection.

Ryan Bundy, Cedar City resident and son of Cliven Bundy, organized the April 2 protest at the auction house, and said he believes this issue goes way beyond cows and grazing rights.

An issue of ownership

“It’s not just about the cattle,” Ryan Bundy said. “The federal government has taken over our land, policing power and state sovereignty.”

Bundy said his family has approximately 500 cattle in Clark County. He said the BLM had contracted with rustlers who were already on his father’s property rounding up livestock to bring to the auction near Austin.

“We’re trying to stop them before they even make it here,” Bundy said. “If they do make it here, I’ll be here to claim them.”

Bundy said the cows had been refused in auction houses throughout Nevada, California and everywhere else in Utah.

“We want people to know R Livestock is willing to sell stolen cattle. This auction yard contracted with the BLM to sell cows stolen off our ranch,” Bundy said. “These are our cattle. They’re private property of my father, Cliven Bundy.”

Bundy said he believed R Livestock owner Scott Robins would receive a 3 percent commission, and had contracted to receive another $500,000 extra on top of the selling price.

“He’s sold his soul to the devil to sell a few stolen cattle,” Bundy said. “This is the only place who would accept this filthy lucre.”

Making the livestock connection

Robins said what Bundy was saying about his auction was simply not true. He said he has contracted with the BLM to auction off the cattle, because that’s his business.

“I own an auction and that’s what I do,” Robins said. “I sell livestock.”

Robins said he didn’t have any stolen cattle on his lot, and he said very strict guidelines are in place at his facility to prevent livestock deemed stolen or unfit to sell from ever exchanging hands.

“There are stringent rules at livestock auctions for both buyers and sellers that have been established,” Robins said. “The rules have to be followed.”

According to Robins, even when the BLM brings cattle confiscated from the Bundys to his yard, they will all be checked to make sure they comply with all state health and branding laws.

“I don’t know this guy,” Robins said. “All I know is they’ve trespassed, and the cows have been confiscated by the BLM. They are being taken due to unpaid fees and noncompliance to federal grazing guidelines.”

As for the question of the half million dollars Bundy said Robins would get on top of his commission for selling the livestock —

“That’s just not true,” Robins said. “Not even close. It’s significantly less than that.”

Robins said he put in a bid with the BLM, which included some up-front funds to renovate his corrals to handle the cattle, then he will receive the rest of the contracted amount when, or if, the cattle sell.

“They wanted to give me the lump-sum up front, but I just didn’t feel right about that,” Robins said.

Robins said if Bundy tries to take the cattle back after they have been delivered to the auction, it will be between him and law enforcement.

“I guess the law will deal with that,” Robins said. “When they bring the cows here, they will be brought by police escort.”

As of Reaper press time, no cattle had been transported from Clark County to R Livestock, but the BLM had tallied that 234 total trespass cattle had been rounded up by the end of the day Monday.

Taking a stand

While none of the cattle had crossed state lines, news of the roundup had spread like wildfire into southern Utah, and the issue became a divisive one.

Some Utah counties, like Iron County, quickly drafted letters issuing ultimatums to the BLM to abide by their own policies with wild horse herds in their area before spending money to take Bundy’s livestock away.

“The decision of the BLM in Clark County, Nev., to force trespass on private citizens has triggered our interest … and has spillover ramifications,” said Iron County Commissioner David Miller in a letter sent to BLM officials. “Why do you have money to deal with noncompliance as in the case with Mr. Cliven Bundy, but no funds to keep yourself in compliance?

“We charge you to fulfill your responsibility to address the concerns found herein and being brought once again to your attention, as in previous communication.”

The letter issued an ultimatum to the BLM, stating that unless the agency created a plan with county officials to remove excess horses from the land to achieve “appropriate management levels,” by Friday, county officials would take action by “necessary means to reduce the numbers of feral horses … on the western range within the county.”

“This is not a threat,” Miller said. “This is a plan of action.”

While state BLM officials are working with Iron County commissioners to hammer out a plan to reduce herd numbers on the range, officials and ranchers in Piute County are taking a stand with the Bundy family.

A handful of ranchers from the Kingston area turned out to support Ryan Bundy’s protest in Sevier County April 2, while others, including Piute County Commissioner Darin Bushman, have taken to social media to show their support for Bundy’s cause.

“A lot happening with this and seems Sevier County may not be able to avoid the controversy,” said Piute County recorder Shane Millett. “Piute County is standing with Cliven Bundy.”

Cause for concern

Sevier County commissioners did call an emergency meeting to address concerns raised over the issue Friday morning, and drafted a resolution urging the BLM to hold off on shipping the cattle to Sevier County until conflicting information regarding the situation could be cleared up, also urging them to reconsider shipping the cattle to Utah altogether.

“There’s so much misinformation out there on these cattle,” said Commissioner Gordon Topham. “We’ve considered the safety of our county, and because of the misinformation that’s out there, we feel they [the cows] need to stay put until they [the BLM] can answer some questions to ensure our safety.”

Topham said he is concerned that the proliferation of conflicting information regarding the situation surrounding Bundy’s battle with the BLM may take a heated turn once the cattle are removed and transported to Sevier County, which could lead to someone getting hurt.

“People are frightened, and I fear people may do things they may not otherwise do,” Topham said. “There have been threats, even some that say this whole issue may be worthy of bloodshed.”

Aside from people’s emotions running high, Topham said he also has concerns about the cows that would be coming to the area.

“These are going to be wild animals,” Topham said. He said he is concerned about how difficult it may be to handle these animals, the damage they could do if they escape from their holding pens, and about any potential for spreading disease to livestock owned by local cattlemen.

“Anyone who gets around them could be at risk,” Topham said. “This should have been addressed some other way than dragging the state of Utah into their battle.”

Commissioner Tooter Ogden said in talking with local cattlemen, there is a concern about what could happen if these feral cattle get loose and cause damage. He said he is also concerned about the damage this whole situation may cause to Robins and his auction from either side.

“I want to protect Scott Robins,” Ogden said. “I want to make sure he’s made whole if he doesn’t sell those cattle.”

Commissioner Gary Mason said Sevier County just wants both sides to use their heads.

“We’re not asking them to do anything radical, just use common sense,” Mason said. “I’m unsure why people are sticking up for this guy. He broke the law for many years and he owes the government a lot of money.”

Mason said he doesn’t like the way the BLM is handling the situation. He said the bureau is mad at Bundy and they are using him as an example, which he said he doesn’t think is right either.

Either way, Mason said the county has petitioned the BLM to reconsider bringing the cattle to Sevier County, but what they do with that resolution is up to them. He said they’ve done all they can do.

“We’ve received numerous calls from other counties wondering why we are allowing this to happen,” Mason said. “We don’t have the authority to stop it.”

A push for reconsideration

Along with the Sevier County commissioners, many officials representing the state of Utah have petitioned the BLM to consider alternatives, and Gov. Gary Herbert even issued a written letter to top BLM officials urging them not to transport the cattle to Utah.

“There are serious concerns about human safety and animal well-being, if these animals are shipped to Utah,” Herbert said. “I am troubled by the high level of emotion and furor generated by this issue.”

Herbert said he is concerned by the threats and public disturbances that have been reported, and at the risk the situation could potentially cause community, residents and state employees who would have to be involved with the sale, should it occur.

“I strongly believe this proposed transaction is a Nevada issue, involving Nevada residents and Nevada livestock,” Herbert said. “And indeed, moving this potentially wild cattle herd to Utah poses unnecessary risks to our employees and residents and threatens our state’s $1 billion livestock industry. I strongly request that you take immediate action to halt the current transport and auction plan.”

Continuing as planned

The BLM’s roundup to remove the cattle officially started Thursday as planned.

“Officials and citizens in Utah have expressed concerns about transporting cattle from this herd into their state” said Kirsten Cannon, spokesperson for the BLM’s Southern Nevada District Office. “Over the past two years, Mr. Bundy has sold nearly 400 cattle, which were transported to Utah, California and Nevada for sale. It is safer for the federal government to provide a controlled escort of the cattle to the auction yard, as opposed to individuals purchasing the cattle in Nevada and shipping them personally to Utah.”

An aerial count conducted April 1-3 tallied a total of 908 cows spread out across approximately 750,000 acres.

According to Cannon, the original grazing allotment, where the trespass started in 1993, was 158,000 acres and permitted a maximum of 152 cattle before it was closed to all grazing use. She said in the past 20 years, the trespass cattle herd has grown over five-fold and has spread across an additional 615,000 acres.

“Cattle have been grazing in trespass on these lands for more than two decades,” Cannon said. “This is unfair to the thousands of other ranchers who graze in compliance with federal laws and regulations throughout the west. We have made repeated attempts to resolve this matter administratively and judicially.”

In July and October 2013, Cannon said district court judges ordered Bundy to remove his cattle from federal lands inside and outside the former Bunkerville allotment within 45 days and stated that the United States is authorized to seize and impound any cattle that remain in trespass after 45 days. Since the first court order, Cannon said 270 days have passed — 178 since the second.

“In addition to two court orders issued by two federal judges within the past year, [the] BLM and National Park Service have issued a notice of intent to impound and BLM issued a trespass notice and order to remove,” Cannon said. “Neither the court orders nor agency communications have gained the voluntary removal of the trespass cattle from federal lands.”

Consistent with state law and administrative process, Cannon said branded cattle will be offered back to the owner or owners of record — after trespass fees and cost of removal have been paid to the BLM — and any estray cattle will be turned over to the Nevada Department of Agriculture.

It is anticipated that the operation will last approximately 21 days, but could last up to 30 days, depending on weather, cattle locations and other variables, Cannon said.

“We regret that Mr. Bundy has chosen not to remove his trespass cattle from the federal lands thus placing a burden on the taxpayer,” Cannon said. “We will not know the exact costs of this operation until the impoundment is complete owing to a variety of factors. We will make every effort to minimize the impacts on public land users while the operation is under way. But again, because safety is our first priority, BLM and NPS have put temporary closures into effect.”

Impoundments of livestock are a last resort, Cannon said. She said the BLM and NPS continue to support grazing on federal land, but allowing individuals to continue trespass grazing on federal lands is unfair to other ranchers whose livestock graze in compliance with federal laws and regulations.

“Mr. Bundy owes the federal government, and therefore the American people, more than $1 million in fees associated with cattle grazing in trespass,” Cannon said. “If Mr. Bundy would have abided by the terms of his permit and paid his grazing fees over the past 20 years, his cattle could still be allowed to graze on the former Bunkerville allotment today.”

Additionally, Cannon said in an April 6 statement that Bundy has created a larger burden to the taxpayer through his statements.

“He has said he will do ‘whatever it takes’ and that his response to the impound is ‘going to have to be more physical,’” Cannon said. “We support everyone’s rights to express themselves lawfully and peacefully, but when threats are made that could jeopardize the safety of the American people, the contractors and our personnel, we have the responsibility to provide law enforcement to account for their safety.

“The greater the threats, the more security that is needed to provide public safety and the greater the costs to the American taxpayer. We are hopeful that lawful protests don’t escalate to illegal activity.”

Taking potential threats seriously

Later that day, one of Cliven Bundy’s son, Dave Bundy, 37, was taken into custody in Bunkerville.

Cannon said Dave Bundy failed to comply with multiple requests by BLM law enforcement to leave the temporary closure area on public lands.

“The BLM is working with the Department of Justice to file a criminal complaint,” Cannon said. “Public safety is central to the work of the BLM and NPS during this operation … If a member of the public chooses to ignore an officer, the individual may be issued a citation.”

The Bundy family has reported Dave Bundy may have been mistreated when he was taken into custody.

Keeping the peace

As this issue continues to heat up in Clark County, Sevier County Sheriff Nathan Curtis said he is working to try to keep things as cool as possible if things flare up in Austin once the cattle start to arrive.

“My main concern is keeping the peace,” Curtis said. “A lot of people want us to stop it. If there is anything illegal going on, we would do everything to stop it. If we can prove there is a crime, we will take action, but that hasn’t happened yet.”

Curtis said in 2000 the BLM brought a load of cattle to auction off in Salina without permits, and then-Sheriff Phil Barney turned them back over to their owners. He said this time, however, the agency has done its due diligence to make sure that doesn’t happen again.

“This time, they’ve met every requirement [Clark County] Sheriff [Douglas] Gillespie has put on them,” Curtis said. “The BLM has done everything right.”

Still, Curtis said he has issues with how everything has happened.

“The BLM’s bank account of public trust is overdrawn,” Curtis said. “This is just another case of that.”

Regardless, Curtis said his job is to make sure that when cattle start making their pilgrimage from Mesquite, Nev., to Monroe, things remain civil.

“We are moving forward as planned,” Curtis said. “We’ve tried to stop it, but we have no legal leg to stand on to shut this thing down.”

According to Curtis, there is a five-day holding period from when the cattle are rounded up to when they can be transported. He said the first load of cows could make it into Sevier County as early as today, April 9.

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