By John L. Smith
LAS VEGAS (Reuters) - Nevada cattleman Cliven Bundy repeatedly rebuffed overtures to settle a range-land dispute with the U.S. government that festered for years, leading to the armed standoff that landed him in jail, a prosecution witness testified on Wednesday.
Mary Jo Rugwell, former head of the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) district office in southern Nevada, took the stand as the government's first witness in the conspiracy and assault trial of Bundy, two of his sons and a fourth defendant.
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The four men are charged with 15 criminal counts stemming from a 2014 confrontation that galvanized right-wing militia groups challenging federal authority over vast tracts of public lands in the American West.
The revolt against BLM by Bundy and armed followers was sparked by the court-ordered roundup of Bundy's cattle in April of that year after he had refused for two decades to pay fees required to graze his herds on federal property.
Hundreds of supporters, responding to his pleas for help, descended on Bundy's ranch near Bunkerville, Nevada, about 75 miles northeast of Las Vegas, in a show of force to demand that his impounded livestock be returned.
Police and government agents, vastly outgunned, ultimately retreated rather than risk bloodshed, and no shots were ever fired.
Rugwell, now BLM's Wyoming director, testified that during her tenure in Nevada she oversaw 3.5 million acres of federal land, including a 154,00-acre Bunkerville allotment to which Bundy and his father had long held grazing rights.
Bundy himself paid his federal grazing fees as required until March 1993, raising objections three years after the government tightened ranching restrictions to protect habitat of the endangered desert tortoise, Rugwell testified.
By then, she said, Bundy was firing off letters to BLM challenging its jurisdiction over what he said were ancestral family lands dating back to the 1800s.
Rugwell told jurors that BLM sought to compromise with Bundy on numerous occasions, offering him a 10-year grazing permit if he paid his overdue fees, but "he opted not to do so.” Thus began a protracted legal battle that led to confiscation of his herd.
In opening statements on Tuesday, Bundy's lawyer, Bret Whipple, asserted the government was at fault for escalating the conflict, in part by twice taking his client to court over grazing rights.
Bundy, 71, his two sons, Ammon and Ryan Bundy, and co-defendant Ryan Payne, have cast the uprising as an act of patriotic civil disobedience against government excess.
Prosecutors contend Bundy and his followers were defying the rule of law by threat of violence, rather than engaging in an act of legal protest.
On Wednesday, Payne's attorney told jurors his client, a former U.S. Army veteran, drove from Montana days before the standoff in order to protect Bundy and his family, whom Payne saw as under siege.
"He came to Nevada to keep them safe, and that's exactly what he did," public defender Ryan Norwood told jurors.
The trial is expected to run through February.
(Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Peter Cooney)