By Laura Zuckerman
April 11 (Reuters) - Self-styled militia members and ultra-conservatives rallied on Friday to the cause of a defiant rancher accused by the U.S. government of illegally grazing his cattle for decades on public lands in the southern Nevada desert.
The showdown between rancher Cliven Bundy and U.S. land managers has 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.
Bob Diehl, head of a group calling itself the Southern Nevada Militia, based in Mesquite, Nevada, 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 has tapped into long-simmering anger in Nevada and other big Western states rooted in the fact that vast tracts of their land are owned and governed by federal agencies, much of it by the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management, or BLM.
"Many of us are here for the same reason. It's not about cattle, it's not about land, it's about bringing the constitution back to the people," Diehl said.
Diehl said many who believe the federal government has overreached its authority by intervening in states' rights in such areas as guns, land use and marriage laws have come to see the Bundy Ranch and the forced roundup as "the last stand for American independence."
The dispute between Bundy and federal land managers began in 1993 when he stopped paying fees of about $1.35 per cow-calf pair to graze public lands that are also home to imperiled animals such as the Mojave Desert tortoise. The BLM also claims Bundy has ignored cancellation of his grazing leases and defied federal court orders to remove his cattle.
Bundy has said in legal documents that his right to graze the land predates the government's management of it, that he was "a citizen of Nevada and not a citizen of the territory of the United States," and that the BLM failed to produce proof it had jurisdiction over the lands.
His wife, Carol Bundy, said in an interview with Reuters on Monday that it was "a freedom issue that we're really fighting here."
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 on Friday.
In legal documents seeking court approval for the seizure, U.S. attorneys said Bundy described the grazing allotment as "his property," referred to his disagreement with the BLM as a "range war" and testified during a legal deposition that he would "do whatever it takes," including physically resisting, to prevent seizure of his cattle.
While Bundy's plight has stirred support among conservative lawmakers in Nevada and neighboring states such as Arizona, an organization that monitors extremist groups said the issue is about theft, not ideology.
"He owes the American people $1 million, and he's telling us he's defending the Constitution? He's not defending anything for us," said Mark Potok, senior fellow with the Southern Poverty Law Center. (Reporting by Laura Zuckerman in Salmon, Idaho; Editing by Steve Gorman and Ken Wills)