Cliven Bundy

A federal court has ordered rancher Cliven Bundy to remove his cattle from land managed by the Bureau of Land Management in central Nevada. He refuses to do so. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times / August 20, 2013)

LAS VEGAS -- From the cab of his old pickup, Cliven Bundy watched the trucks congregate on the horizon near his ranch some 80 miles north of here. His ongoing range war with the federal government, Bundy said, has heated up yet again.

Officials say Bundy is illegally running cattle in the 600,000-acre Gold Butte area, a habitat of the protected desert tortoise. Last year, a U.S. District Court judge ruled that if the 68-year-old veteran rancher did not remove his cattle, they could be seized by the Bureau of Land Management.

On Thursday, federal authorities began closing off Gold Butte area and rounding up what they call “trespass cattle” there. Many of them belong to Bundy.

Photo gallery: Nevada rancher faces off with BLM

“I see where they’re set up,” Bundy told the Los Angeles Times by telephone Thursday.  “There’s trailers and communications vans. I haven't seen them take any of my cattle yet, but they're getting ready to.”

For two decades, Bundy has waged a one-man range war with federal officials over his cattle's grazing on 150 square miles of scrub desert overseen by the BLM. Since 1993, he's refused to pay BLM grazing fees, arguing in court filings that his Mormon ancestors worked the land long before the BLM was formed, giving him rights that predate federal involvement.

Bundy also likes to say he "fired the BLM," vowing not to give one dime to an agency that he says is plotting his demise. The back fees exceed $300,000, he said.

The father of 14 insists that generations of his family have ranched and worked this unforgiving landscape along the Virgin River since the 1880s. He says government overregulation has already driven scores of fellow ranchers out of business in sprawling Clark County, leaving him as the last man standing.

For years the rancher has insisted that his cattle aren't going anywhere. He acknowledges that he keeps firearms at his ranch and has vowed to do "whatever it takes" to defend his animals from seizure.

"I've got to protect my property," he told The Times last year. "If people come to monkey with what's mine, I'll call the county sheriff. If that don't work, I'll gather my friends and kids and we'll try to stop it. I abide by all state laws. But I abide by almost zero federal laws."

In 1998, a federal judge issued a permanent injunction against the white-haired rancher, ordering his cattle off the land and setting off a long series of legal filings.

Kirsten Cannon, spokeswoman for the Nevada BLM office in Reno, said the federal government means business this time.

“His cattle have been illegally trespassing on federal land for two decades and it’s just unfair for those who ranch in compliance,” she said. “We made repeated attempts to resolve this. The courts have ordered him to move his cattle. Now we’ve reached the last resort, which is impoundment.”

Environmentalists say it’s time for Bundy to get his cattle off federal land because they are endangering the habitat of creatures who have been there forever.

"Despite having no legal right to do so, cattle from Bundy’s ranch have continued to graze throughout the Gold Butte area, competing with tortoises for food, hindering the ability of plants to recover from extensive wildfires, trampling rare plants, damaging ancient American Indian cultural sites and threatening the safety of recreationists,” the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity said in a statement earlier this week. 

The group added, “Surveys by the BLM have found well over 1,000 cattle — many in easily damaged freshwater springs and riparian areas on public lands managed by the National Park Service and state of Nevada as well as the BLM.”

Despite the court order, he refused to pull one head of cattle off BLM land. "At first I said, 'No,'" he told the Times last year, "then I said, 'Hell, no.'"

In a telephone interview Thursday, Bundy's wife, Carol, said the family remains as resolved as ever. “It just shows that we’re not a sovereign state,” she said of the government's action Thursday. “It just shows that the federal government thinks they have power over us. My county and my state is allowing this to happen. But you know what? They haven’t taken our cattle yet. We’re still hanging on.”

Carol Bundy told The Times that Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie has not responded to their requests to intervene. “We want him to step in and tell these federal characters that ‘This is Clark County, Nev., land and you have go through me to get these cattle.’ But we have not heard a word.”

Gillsepie told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that neither Bundy nor the BLM should resort to violence. “No drop of human blood is worth spilling over any cow,” he told the newspaper.

So the Bundy family waits. The rancher said he’ll be patrolling the land near his ranch, waiting for any sign the federal government is taking his cattle.

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john.glionna@latimes.com