Sending scores of armed agents along with helicopters and dogs to confront an elderly Nevada rancher over grazing fees may seem like overkill, but critics say it’s not inconsistent with the federal government’s recent approach to environmental enforcement.
The simmering truce between the Bundys and the Bureau of Land Management comes after high-profile raids last year by armed federal agents on small-time gold miners in tiny Chicken, Alaska, and guitar makers at the Gibson Guitar facilities in Tennessee.
That doesn’t include more subtle threats, such as recent efforts by the Obama administration to raise grazing fees or pressure permit holders to transfer their water rights as a condition of renewal, said Ryan Yates, director of congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau.
“Some have called it a culture of intimidation,” Mr. Yates said. “It’s issue after issue, threat after threat. It’s becoming harder and harder to keep those operations in business.”
The atmosphere was quiet but tense Tuesday at the Bundy ranch near Bunkerville, Nev., just days after Bureau of Land Management chief Neil Kornze pulled federal agents off the property and returned about 400 head of cattle to rancher Cliven Bundy.
A BLM spokesman said the agency would work to resolve the dispute “administratively and judicially,” but so far Bundy supporters aren’t buying it. Patrols of armed supporters remained at the ranch on the lookout for the return of BLM agents, instead of heeding calls from lawmakers to disband and return home, according to KLAS-TV in Las Vegas.
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That may be in part because Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid warned Monday that “it’s not over.”
Meanwhile, former Rep. Ron Paul, Texas Republican, told Fox News he worried the federal government could hit back hard at the Bundy ranch.
“The other thing is, governments don’t give up their power easily, and they may well come back with a lot more force, like they did at Waco with the Davidians,” said Mr. Paul, referring to the deadly 1993 federal raid on the Branch Davidian compound. “So I don’t know which way it’s going, but so far, so good.”
Examples of hostile behavior by federal agencies prompted an Oct. 29 oversight hearing by a House Natural Resources subcommittee on “Threats, Intimidation and Bullying by Federal Land Managing Agencies.”
Rep. Rob Bishop, Utah Republican, said in his opening statement at the time that the hearing would feature “a number of troubling cases in which federal land managing agencies have employed abusive tactics to extort rural families into giving up property rights or to bully farmers and ranchers into making concessions to which the federal agency had no legal right.”
While Mr. Bundy has been criticized for failing to pay his grazing fees, a move made after federal efforts to limit grazing after the desert tortoise was listed as threatened, the BLM’s over-the-top response has helped turn him into a sympathetic figure among rural Westerners.
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“I think there are many people who object to someone not paying grazing fees but who also find the federal government’s behavior in this situation in particular, and with regard to management of the enormous federal estate in general, to be increasingly indefensible — intimidating, destructive and cruel,” said Heritage Foundation senior adviser Robert Gordon.
As Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval put it shortly after the BLM’s arrival, “No cow justifies the atmosphere of intimidation, which currently exists, nor the limitation of constitutional rights that are sacred to all Nevadans.”