By Laura Zuckerman
April 10 (Reuters) - Armed U.S. rangers are rounding up cattle on federal land in Nevada in a rare showdown with a rancher who has illegally grazed his herd on public lands for decades, as conflict over land use simmers in western states.
The dispute in Nevada came to a boiling point after environmentalists told federal land managers they planned to sue to protect a threatened tortoise whose habitat was being destroyed by grazing cattle.
Federal authorities sent in helicopters and wranglers on horseback, starting on Saturday, to seize the estimated 1,000-strong herd, in a battle rancher Cliven Bundy and his allies have likened to a range war with a remote government seeking to suppress the independent spirit of the U.S. West.
"It's a freedom issue that we're really fighting here, and it's bigger than our cows and bigger than the tortoises. It's about the federal government wanting control to do whatever it wants to do," the rancher's wife, Carol Bundy, said in an interview.
The showdown is emblematic of a broader conflict between a dwindling number of ranchers, who have traditionally grazed cattle on public lands and held sway over land-use decisions, and environmentalists and land managers facing competing demands on lands opened to oil and gas development, recreation and other uses.
The Nevada roundup follows a decades-long conflict between Cliven Bundy and U.S. land managers over a grazing allotment that spans nearly 600,000 acres of federal range and park lands in the southern Nevada desert.
Bundy stopped paying grazing fees of about $1.35 a month per cow-calf pair in 1993, ignored the government's cancellation of his leases and defied federal court orders to remove his cattle, according to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. But it took more than 20 years for the government to forcefully intervene.
Bundy is not the only rancher who violated federal grazing regulations, although his case is among the most severe, BLM officials said. Most violations are resolved by the next grazing season and tied to lesser issues such as failing to leave grazing lands by a specified seasonal date.
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Wranglers have so far seized 277 head of Bundy cattle, many of them cow-calf pairs that may ultimately be sold at auction, in an operation that is expected to continue into May. Such large interventions are exceedingly rare.
The BLM, which oversees roughly 18,000 permits and leases for livestock on 158 million acres in mostly Western states, sees an average of four livestock impoundments a year involving a few dozen animals at most, said senior BLM rangeland management specialist Bob Bolton.
"What we're doing this week in Nevada is not the norm at all," he said of the action.
The BLM said the illegal grazing was unfair to thousands of other ranchers who abide by range laws, even as the move came under criticism from Nevada's Republican governor, who urged the agency to reconsider its approach.
"No cow justifies the atmosphere of intimidation which currently exists," Governor Brian Sandoval said in a statement on Tuesday.
The Nevada Cattlemen's Association also said it was concerned how the Bundy cattle confiscation evolved.
The standoff with the BLM, better known for partnering with ranchers than fighting them, stems in part from the Bundy's belief that their right to graze the land predates the federal government's management of it, and that the county and state should ultimately have authority over lands in their boundaries.
That is the theme of a similar debate underway in neighboring Utah, where county commissioners have threatened to remove federally protected wild horses from U.S. rangelands after drought prompted federal managers to consider reducing the number of cattle permitted to graze there, BLM officials said.
In a show of support for Bundy's defiance, commissioners in Utah are pushing to remove one wild horse for every Bundy cow seized in Nevada. But the Center for Biological Diversity, which notified the government in 2012 that it was suing to protect the Mojave Desert tortoise, welcomed the Nevada move.
"The federal government has been caving in to Cliven Bundy for years at the sacrifice of lands that are not only being destroyed for the tortoise but also for all the people of the United States who own it," said Rob Mrowka, a senior scientist with the center. (Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Richard Chang)