Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah) decried the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and other regulatory agencies Tuesday for staffing their departments with what he calls “paramilitary units.”
The congressman’s remarks, which were first reported by the Salt Lake Tribune, were made in reference to the recent standoff between federal agents and Cliven Bundy, the 67-year-old Nevada rancher who refuses to remove his “trespass cattle” from federal property.
Stewart, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, vowed to block regulatory agencies from essentially creating their own small armies and said federal agents should instead rely on local police to enforce out the law.
"There are lots of people who are really concerned when the BLM shows up with its own SWAT team," Stewart said. "They’re regulatory agencies, they’re not paramilitary units, and I think that concerns a lot of us."
The Bureau of Land Management doesn't have any SWAT or tactical teams, an agency spokeswoman said Tuesday.
The Bureau of Land Management earlier this month deployed armed federal agents to the Gold Butte area in Nevada to remove Bundy’s 900 “trespass cattle.” However, after being confronted by several of Bundy’s armed supporters, many of whom were there at the invitation of the rancher, federal agents decided to cease all roundup operations and released approximately 400 impounded cattle.
Stewart made it clear on Tuesday that he isn’t taking sides in the ongoing battle between Bundy and the federal government. Rather, the Republican lawmaker said, his focus is on the federal government’s armed response to the Bundy standoff, adding that federal agents should almost always defer to local law enforcement officials in these cases.
"They should do what anyone else would do," he said. "Call the local sheriff, who has the capability to intervene in situations like that."
The Interior Department said Tuesday that the Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service "had law enforcement personnel present" during the roundup to "provide safety for their employees and the public," the Salt Lake Tribune reported.
The property that Bundy has been illegally grazing on for more than two decades is recognized under the law as belonging to the federal government. Nevada has deferred the matter of the rancher’s trespassing to federal agents, not local police.
Further, the federal response, according to Bureau of Land Management representatives, was a precaution based on years of provocations in the area and incendiary language used by the Bundys.
The rancher once told reporters once that he keeps several firearms at his ranch, adding that he would do “whatever it takes” to protect his cattle.
“I’ve got to protect my property … if people come to monkey with what’s mine, I’ll call the county sheriff. If that don’t work, I’ll gather my friends and kids and we’ll try to stop it. I abide by all state laws. But I abide by almost zero federal laws,” he said.
He has repeatedly referred to his ongoing struggle as a “range war” and has invoked the Waco, Texas, and Ruby Ridge massacres. Also, between 1995 and 1996, just a few years after the federal government decided to turn portions of Gold Butte into a protective habitat for the state’s desert tortoise, Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management offices were hit with pipe bombs. No one was hurt in the attacks and no one ever claimed responsibility.
All of these things were taken into account when federal agents drafted their plans to remove Bundy’s cattle from Gold Butte, a Bureau of Land Management representative said, adding that armed personnel were only deployed to ensure the safety of government agents.
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