Cooler heads prevailed in Nevada this weekend when the Bureau of Land Management erased the red line it had drawn to keep a few unauthorized cows off federal land.
The federal bureaucrats were besides themselves that a rancher named Cliven Bundy dared to graze his cattle on a vast expanse of federal rangeland called the Bunkerville Allotment. It was thought the cows might disturb a turtle.
The Endangered Species Act hung a "Do Not Disturb" sign around the 159,000-acre plot, since government officials presume cows and the desert tortoise are unable to get along peaceably. Mr. Bundy ignored the sign and kept doing what his family has been doing since before Nevada was a state.
His cattle grazed where they have always grazed, in the forbidden territory. That act of insubordination enraged the Bureau of Land Management.
As petty bureaucrats always do, the agency resorted to legal bullying. An army of Justice Department lawyers encamped around the federal courthouse in Las Vegas until they emerged with a ruling declaring Mr. Bundy a scofflaw. (No charges were filed against the cows.) Mr. Bundy missed a filing deadline for an appeal, and by February, the federales had a green light to use extreme measures to seize any and all wayward cows.
With relish, federal agents, no doubt with dreams of reprising Waco dancing in their heads, donned riot gear, loaded sniper rifles and deployed helicopters to send a message: This White House is more than willing to use overwhelming force and risk human lives to save a turtle. What the White House wasn't expecting was the sizable turnout of armed protesters who weren't willing to be corralled into the tiny "First Amendment zones" the agency had established to keep dissent out of sight.
The Bureau of Land Management was acting like its sister agency, the National Park Service, which walled up outdoor memorials around the nation's capital during last summer's partial government shutdown, eager, as one disgusted park ranger revealed, to "make life as difficult for everybody as possible." Only an administration that sees itself at war with the American people would adopt such a spiteful attitude.
Mr. Bundy has shown considerable courage by standing up to bullying by the government's D-Day operation, but his legal arguments are nevertheless a bit dubious. The Bundy family has in the past obtained federal permits to graze, and his insistence that he can graze without them is based on state law, which prevails only if the state of Nevada is willing to back up his claim — and it isn't.
The governor, Brian Sandoval, was careful to urge all to show restraint. He didn't endorse Mr. Bundy's claim, but he rightly scorched the Bureau of Land Management for its outrageous overreach. "No cow," he said last week, "justifies the atmosphere of intimidation which currently exists, nor the limitation of constitutional rights that are sacred to all Nevadans."
That was about all Mr. Sandoval thought he could do, considering that the federal government has over the years appropriated 81 percent of his state. The arrogance of the Bureau of Land Management, the state's No. 1 landowner, is what drew hundreds to support Mr. Bundy's broader cause, which is one of states' rights.
The federal government has no business rustling cattle within a state's borders. Unless a turtle makes a run for the Arizona border, there's no interstate commerce at work. Land management should be a state concern. Instead of deploying a million-dollar task force to harass ranchers like Mr. Bundy, the Bureau of Land Management might lend some of its resources to guarding the U.S border with Mexico, and leave the cows to chew their cud in peace.