Posted: Apr 04, 2014 5:52 PM PST Updated: Apr 05, 2014 2:58 PM PST
BUNKERVILLE, Nev. -- Dozens of armed federal officers are preparing for a showdown with a Nevada cattle rancher regarded by some as an outlaw and a hero by others.
Rangers and agents from several federal agencies have surrounded a 600,000-acre section of public land and are preparing to move against rancher Cliven Bundy whose cattle have been grazing illegally for the past 20 years.
"This is the freedom we have in America right now. You got to have your freedom inside that fence there," Bundy said.
Bunkerville rancher Cliven Bundy thinks the federal government has overplayed its hand in preparing to round up his cattle.
Example, there are two fenced spots where the public will be allowed to protest the roundup. A sign inside the fence shows how some people feel about a First Amendment zone.
During the I-Team's tour with Bundy, a passer-by stopped to offer encouragement.
"I'm one of your neighbors. I get to look at that every day of my life. Hang in there my friend," his neighbor said.
"This has become a police state, and this is an example of it right here," Bundy said.
Miles away, just off the interstate, another fenced area is the where media are allowed. Armed agents in trucks form a wall to prevent anyone from approaching what resembles a military staging area, the heart of the Bundy roundup operation.
More rangers sit at every road leading into the 600,0000-acres Gold Butte area to prevent the general public from coming in.
"With all these rangers and all this force that is out here, they are only after one man right now. They are after Cliven Bundy. Whether they want to incarcerate me or whether they want to shoot me in the back, they are after me. But that is not all that is at stake here. Your liberty and freedom is at stake," Bundy said.
Bundy has had a long time to sharpen his message. The fight has been building since 1993, when the Bureau of Land Management changed grazing rules for Gold Butte to protect the endangered desert tortoise.
Bundy refused to go along and stopped paying his fees. Since then, the BLM and federal courts have ordered him to stop letting his cattle roam throughout Gold Butte, and he has ignored the orders because he does not recognize federal authority over the land.
"My forefathers have been up and down the Virgin Valley ever since 1877. All these rights I claim have been created through pre-emptive rights and beneficial use of the forage and water. I have been here longer. My rights are before the BLM even existed," Bundy said.
The Bundy family was already ranching here long before the Department of Interior was born, and long before tortoises were protected. But federal courts say he doesn't have a legal leg to stand on. BLM has long sidestepped the fight in part because of concerns about what might happen, if it tried to round up his 500 or so cattle that even now are grazing on forbidden public lands.
Bundy says he has always been willing to pay fees but not if it helps to cut his own throat.
"I got no problem with that. I've tried to pay it to Nevada state, to Clark County. They have some of my money in their coffers right now but I'm not going to pay money for the wrong landlord, and I am not going to pay my money to BLM to manage me out of business," Bundy said, "The federal government has seized Nevada's sovereignty, Nevada's statehood. They have seized Nevada's laws and our public land. We have no access to our public land and that is only a little bit of it."
Critics say Bundy is being arrogant and that his cattle have caused irreparable harm to Gold Butte's fragile environment.
Environmentalists forced BLM's hand by threatening to sue in federal court. The bureau will pay nearly a $1 million to a private contractor to round up Bundy's cows, but with dozens of government agents positioned all around the area for what might take weeks or even months, the true cost could be much higher.
Bundy's cowhands have time to kill because they are prohibited from heading out to work their cattle. And soon enough, there could be no cattle left. The BLM plans to sell off Bundy's herd. Bundy stops short of saying how far he is willing to take it.
"I've fought this thing legally. I've fought it politically. I've fought it through the media. and I will fight it on the ground if I have to," Bundy said.
The I-Team has been asking to speak with Cliven Bundy for more than two years. He told the I-Team that while he agreed to speak to other media, he intended to save us until the end, and that could come soon.
The BLM won't say exactly when the roundup will begin but it could happen as soon as this weekend.