LAS VEGAS -- Federal land managers abruptly ended the roundup of cattle on public land in southern Nevada owned by a rancher who has refused to recognize their authority, citing a "serious concern" for the safety of employees and the public.
Bureau of Land Management chief Neil Kornze made the announcement Saturday morning as hundreds of people, including militia members, gathered near the roundup area to protest the removal of hundreds of Cliven Bundy's cattle.
The bureau later confirmed that its land managers released all 400 head of cattle they had rounded up. The bureau issued a brief statement saying the cattle were released "due to escalating tensions."
The fight between Mr. Bundy and the Bureau of Land Management had widened into a debate about states' rights and federal land-use policy. The bureau revoked Mr. Bundy's grazing rights after he stopped paying grazing fees and disregarded federal court orders to remove his animals.
Mr. Kornze's announcement came after Mr. Bundy repeatedly promised to "do whatever it takes" to protect his property and after a string of raucous confrontations between federal agents and his family members and supporters during the weeklong operation.
"Based on information about conditions on the ground and in consultation with law enforcement, we have made a decision to conclude the cattle gather because of our serious concerns about the safety of employees and members of the public," Mr. Kornze said in a statement.
Mr. Bundy did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval issued a statement praising the agency for its willingness to listen to the state's concerns. He earlier criticized the agency for creating "an atmosphere of intimidation" and trying to confine protesters to a fenced-in "First Amendment area" well away from the sprawling roundup area.
"The safety of all individuals involved in this matter has been my highest priority," he said. "Given the circumstances, today's outcome is the best we could have hoped for."
Nevada's congressional delegation urged the protesters to be calm and to leave the area.
"The dispute is over, the BLM is leaving, but emotions and tensions are still near the boiling point, and we desperately need a peaceful conclusion to this conflict," U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., said in a statement. "I urge all the people involved to please return to your homes and allow the BLM officers to collect their equipment and depart without interference."
The cows were gathered during the roundup that began a week ago, short of the BLM's goal of 900 cows that it says have been trespassing on U.S. land without required grazing permits for over 20 years.
Mr. Bundy, 67, doesn't recognize federal authority on land that he insists belongs to Nevada. His Mormon family has operated a ranch since the 1870s near the tiny town of Bunkerville and the Utah and Arizona lines.