Federal land managers abruptly ended a roundup of cattle on public land in southern Nevada from a rancher who has refused to recognize their authority, citing a "serious concern" for the safety of employees and the public.
Bureau of Land Management chief Neil Kornze made the announcement Saturday morning at the same time militia members and others gathered near the roundup site to protest the removal of hundreds of Cliven Bundy's cattle.
The showdown between rancher Bundy and U.S. land managers had brought a team of armed federal rangers to Nevada to seize his 1,000 head of cattle in an unusual roundup that has become a flashpoint for anti-government groups, right-wing politicians and gun-rights activists.
"After one week, we have made progress in enforcing two recent court orders to remove the trespass cattle from public lands that belong to all Americans," Kunze said in a press release.
"Based on information about conditions on the ground, and in consultation with law enforcement, we have made a decision to conclude the cattle gather because of our serious concern about the safety of employees and members of the public," the statement read.
Authorities have returned the last of his confiscated herd, Reuters reported.
Some 400 cows had been gathered during the roundup that began a week ago, short of the BLM's goal of 900 cows that it says were trespassing on public land.
Bundy didn't immediately respond to The Associated Press' request for comment.
Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, who had complained about the BLM's handling of the roundup, issued a statement praising the agency for its willingness to listen to the state's concerns.
Self-styled militia members and ultra-conservatives rallied Friday to the cause of the defiant rancher, who has been accused by the U.S. government of illegally grazing his cattle for decades on public lands in the southern Nevada desert.
Bob Diehl, head of a group calling itself the Southern Nevada Militia, based in Mesquite, Nev., estimated that as many as 1,500 supporters turned out Friday to protest the government seizure of Bundy's livestock from 600,000 acres of federal range and park lands that he has claimed as his own property.
The dispute that triggered the roundup dates to 1993, when the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management (BLM) cited concern for the federally protected desert tortoise. The agency later revoked Bundy's grazing rights.
Bundy claims ancestral rights to graze his cattle on lands his Mormon family settled in the 19th century. He stopped paying grazing fees and disregarded several court orders to remove his animals.
Amy Lueders, head of the Nevada BLM office, said the cattle seizure was a last resort to address a rancher who "owes the American people in excess of $1 million" in back fees, penalties and other costs.
"Mr. Bundy is breaking the law and he has been breaking the law for the last 20 years," she told reporters during a telephone news conference Friday.
Local officials disagree.
"I'm seeing a lot of passionate Americans willing to stand up for important rights," said Nevada State Assemblywoman Michele Fiore.
Fiore, a Republican, said Friday she has been making the 80-mile drive from Las Vegas to a growing tent city of militia members, advocates and protesters in dusty but scenic rangeland near Bundy's ranch, just east of the Virgin River. She said she was horrified that BLM police used stun guns on one of Bundy's adult sons during a Wednesday confrontation on a state highway near the Bundy melon farm in the Gold Butte area.
Video of that explicit confrontation has spread on the Internet, along with blog commentary claiming excessive government force and calls to arms from self-described militia leaders.
Some have invoked references to deadly confrontations with federal authorities, including a siege of a ranch home in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in 1992 and the fiery destruction of a religious compound near Waco, Texas, that killed 76 people in 1993.
Several other Republican elected officials supported Bundy's dispute with the federal government.
Ariz. Rep. Kelly Townsend told local newspaper The Las Vegas Review-Journal that the Bundy dispute is reminiscent of "Tiananmen Square."
U.S. Rep. Bob Thorpe of Flagstaff said he and state legislators weren't arguing whether Bundy broke laws or violated grazing agreements. Thorpe said the Arizona lawmakers were upset the BLM initially restricted protesters to so-called free speech zones.
U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, also a Republican, had also said he was upset with the way the BLM was conducting the roundup.
The Nevada BLM's Lueders said two protesters were detained Thursday, cited for failure to comply with officers at a barricade and then released.
That brought to three the number of arrests. Bundy's son, Dave Bundy, was arrested last Sunday on State Route 170 and released Monday with citations accusing him of refusing to disperse and resisting arrest.
Lueders said 380 cows were collected by Thursday. She declined to provide a cost estimate for the herding operation.
The roundup started last Saturday, after the BLM and National Park Service shut down an area half the size of Delaware to let cowhands using helicopters and vehicles gather about 900 cattle that officials say are trespassing.
Bundy, 67, and his large family cast their resistance to the roundup as a constitutional stand. He says he doesn't recognize federal authority over state land.
Al Jazeera and wire services