LAS VEGAS — Republican elected officials criticized the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's handling of the armed April standoff with Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, blaming tensions on heavy-handed actions by the agency's law enforcement officials.
The leaders attending the House subcommittee hearing Thursday in Washington said local authorities should have handled the situation. They also said federal land managers should not be allowed to carry guns.
Bundy and his states' rights supporters, including self-proclaimed militia members, thwarted the bureau's attempt to remove his cattle from public land.
The bureau says Bundy owes over $1 million in fees and penalties for trespassing on federal property without a permit for more than 20 years. Bundy refuses to acknowledge federal authority on public lands.
Elko County Commissioner Grant Gerber and Garfield County, Utah, Commissioner Leland Pollock were among local officials who accused the bureau of resorting to threats, intimidation and bullying in its dealings with ranchers and others.
"Right or wrong, some equate BLM's law enforcement operations to the Gestapo of the World War II era," Pollock said in written testimony to the House Natural Resource Committee's Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulations, according to The Salt Lake Tribune.
Gerber accused the bureau's Battle Mountain District manager, Doug Furtado, of threatening and bullying ranchers by cutting back on their grazing rights. Furtado has said the drought is prompting the actions.
"And the BLM is very reluctant to investigate stories of abuse," Gerber said.
Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, said photos of heavily armed government agents crouched behind utility vehicles during the Bundy standoff in southern Nevada looked like they were taken in Afghanistan or Iraq rather than the American West.
"I have observed more and more the level of militarization occurring within many federal agencies, and I mean almost every federal agency," he said, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., said the bureau should have turned the Bundy matter over to the county sheriff.
"Whether Bundy was right or wrong, was the BLM's response reasonable? Anyone watching that unfolding fiasco can answer it was completely insane," he said.
Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona, the lone Democrat to participate in the hearing, said it was difficult to determine the truth because bureau officials were not invited to testify. There were two sides to the Bundy roundup, he added.
"We saw some isolated pictures of heavy-handed law enforcement, but there were also very graphic pictures of militia folks supporting Bundy on the highway, pointing weapons at U.S. marshals," he said.
Bureau spokesman Jeff Krauss, in a statement, defended the agency.
"(The bureau disagrees with the many vague and inaccurate claims that were made at today's hearing regarding the BLM's collaboration with local entities," he said. "Cooperation with all stakeholders is critical to carrying out the BLM's mission and finding common ground in balancing the many uses of the public lands.
"In doing so, across the bureau we routinely enter into contracts, agreements and partnerships with a variety of entities, including local law enforcement, ranchers and members of the public ... to protect public health and safety and improve resource conditions on public lands across the West."