SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's congressional delegation weighed in Thursday on the Bureau of Land Management's shelved proposal to bring cattle seized from a Nevada rancher to the Beehive State for auction.
In a joint statement, Sens. Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee joined Reps. Rob Bishop, Jason Chaffetz and Chris Stewart in urging BLM director Neil Kornze to keep the cattle out of Utah.
“We strongly support Gov. (Gary) Herbert and echo his concerns expressed in his April 2 letter," the statement said. "Going forward with the plan to transport the Nevada cattle to Utah may endanger the health of Utah herds and place Utah state employees and other Utah residents in danger.”
The lawmakers argued that putting Utah's cattle industry at risk, "particularly when there are alternatives available for selling the animals in Nevada, would be imprudent and careless."
The cattle are being seized from Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who has been locked in a fight with the BLM and National Park Service for more than two decades.
Bundy, 67, has allowed his cattle to roam federally managed public lands while refusing to pay grazing fees, according to Amy Leuders, state director of the BLM's Nevada office.
Bundy now owes more than $1 million in unpaid fees, Leuders said in a conference call with reporters late Thursday. It was those unpaid fees that led the agency to obtain a federal court order to seize and auction off nearly 1,000 of Bundy's trespassing cattle.
"This operation is taking place as a last resort," Leuders said.
She added that both the BLM and National Park Service had made repeated attempts — administratively and judicially — to resolve the dispute with Bundy before asking a judge to forfeit the rancher's cattle.
For his part, Bundy maintains that his family's claim to the land predates the creation of the federal agencies he's been battling.
"I would pay my grazing fees to the proper government, which I would say is Clark County, Nevada," he told the Deseret News in a phone interview from his ranch near Bunkerville, Nev.
"I don't believe I owe one penny to the United States government," Bundy added. "I don't have a contract with the United States government."
The BLM and National Park Service have temporarily closed public lands in the area around the cattle gathering operation, citing concern for the safety of the contract cowboys rounding up the livestock and the public. The closure has led to some heated confrontations between federal agents, members of Bundy's family and their supporters.
Bundy's son, Dave Bundy, was arrested over the weekend as the family gathered in the restricted area to record and photograph the seizure of their cattle. The 37-year-old was released from custody after being cited for refusing to disperse and resisting officers, according to the BLM.
Then on Wednesday, a YouTube video was released that purported to show another of Bundy's sons being Tasered by a BLM ranger. Bundy's son appeared to have crashed an ATV into the front of a dump truck that was trying to leave the round-up area. That incident occurred moments after Cliven Bundy's sister was knocked to the ground, according to the rancher.
"We never did have any hand-to-hand combat this morning or up to his time," Cliven Bundy said Thursday afternoon. "But there's like 200 armed military people on my ranch. That's pretty bad to have that much armed force against American people."
Mike Styler, executive director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources and operator of a family farm in Millard County, said he understands the emotion involved in the Bundy situation.
"These folks are very passionate. They're passionate about their heritage. They're passionate about being on the land," Styler said. "They see their lifestyle being threatened.
"I hope that calmer heads will prevail and no one does something that we'll all feel bad about," he added.
As of Thursday night, the BLM and National Park Service had rounded up more than 350 cattle, according to Leuders. Brand inspectors have determined that some of those animals belong to other ranchers, she said. Those cattle are being returned to their rightful owners.
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: GeoffLiesik