John Locher/Las Vegas Review-Journal/AP
Inside StoryMon–Fri 5 ET/2 PT
John Locher/Las Vegas Review-Journal/AP

Nevada rancher versus the federal government: Who’s in the right?

Cliven Bundy and the Bureau of Land Management are locked in an armed standoff

Nevada cattle rancher Cliven Bundy says it's his right to graze his hundreds of head of cattle on any land he chooses. Once the armed confrontation with authorities began, his story gained national attention.

Officials at the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in Nevada said Bundy has been running hundreds of cattle in a federally protected wildlife area and for years refused to pay the fees required to do so.

The BLM — which manages federal lands, primarily in the West, and balances the demands of ranchers, environmentalists and others — is seeking more than $1 million in back fees and fines from Bundy, and after he refused to pay, the government began rounding up his cattle to confiscate them.

A band of armed men rallied to Bundy's side and released the cattle. Then in the standoff that ensued, officers used a stun gun on Bundy's son Ammon Bundy. The BLM, fearing a violent confrontation, backed down.

In Nevada the federal government owns more than 80 percent of land in the state, overseeing 245 million acres, including 800 grazing areas.

Cliven Bundy owns 160 acres that he says were homesteaded by his family in the late 1800s — which he cites as the basis of his claim to water rights today. Records show his family bought the land in 1948. Bundy says the federal government has no authority in this matter and that only Nevada does.

"The courts have ruled that his cattle are in trespass. The courts have demanded that he remove his livestock, and the courts have authorized Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service," says Amy Lueders, Nevada director of the BLM.

Get off our land – period. And give us back our property.

Ammon Bundy

son of Cliven Bundy

Cliven Bundy’s anti-government sentiment has been embraced by his neighbors, fellow ranchers and people from outside the state who have rallied to his cause.

"I feel sorry for any federal agents that want to come in here and try to push us around or anything like that," said rancher Jerad Miller.

"I really don't want violence toward them, but if they're gonna come bring violence to us, if that's the language they want to speak, we'll learn it."

The standoff is a local story that taps into a vein of anti-government sentiment felt deeply across the West. 

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has talked of a Department of Justice task force to defuse the situation, but it's unclear what that would look like.

It has been more than 20 years since the government sieges at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and Waco, Texas, ending in violent confrontations and death.

In this case, with Bundy refusing to give in and armed supporters at least rhetorically spoiling for a fight, the government has retreated from the scene for now.

What is behind homestead laws?

What are the legalities of federally managed land?

Who is in the right?

We consulted a panel of experts for the Inside Story.

The above panel was assembled for the broadcast of "Inside Story" to discuss.

For future hard-hitting conversations, find Al Jazeera America on your TV.

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter