By Jennifer Dobner
BUNKERVILLE, Nevada (Reuters) - U.S. officials ended a stand-off with hundreds of armed protesters in the Nevada desert on Saturday, calling off the government's roundup of cattle it said were illegally grazing on federal land and giving about 300 animals back to the rancher who owned them.
The dispute less than 80 miles northeast of Las Vegas between rancher Cliven Bundy and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management had simmered for days. Bundy had stopped paying fees for grazing his cattle on the government land and officials said he had ignored court orders.
Anti-government groups, right-wing politicians and gun-rights activists camped around Bundy's ranch to support him.
The bureau had called in a team of armed rangers to Nevada to seize the 1,000 head of cattle on Saturday but backed down in the interests of safety.
"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 concern about the safety of employees and members of the public," the bureau's director, Neil Kornze, said in a statement.
The protesters, who at the height of the standoff numbered about 1,000, met the news with applause. Then they quickly advanced on the metal pens where the cattle confiscated earlier in the week were being held.
After consultations with the rancher and his family, the bureau ultimately decided to release the cattle it had rounded up, and the crowd began to disperse.
A number of Bundy's supporters, who included militia members from California, Idaho and other states, dressed in camouflage and carried rifles and sidearms. During the stand-off, some chanted "open that gate" and "free the people."
A man who identified himself as Scott, 43, said he had traveled from Idaho along with two fellow militia members to support Bundy.
"If we don't show up everywhere, there is no reason to show up anywhere," said the man, dressed in camouflage pants and a black flak jacket crouched behind a concrete highway barrier, holding an AR-15 rifle.
"I'm ready to pull the trigger if fired upon," Scott said.
Members of the Bundy family could be seen talking with bureau officials before the cattle were released.
"This is what I prayed for," said Margaret Houston, one of Bundy's sisters. "We are so proud of the American people for being here with us and standing with us."
Close to 300 cattle that had been seized were led through a wash under Interstate-15 and back onto land where Bundy's herds have grazed for decades.
"We won the battle," said Ammon Bundy, one of the rancher's sons.
The dispute has tapped into long-simmering anger in Nevada and other big Western states, where vast tracts of land are owned and governed by federal agencies.
The dispute between Bundy and federal land managers began in 1993 when he stopped paying fees of about $1.35 per cow-calf pair to graze public lands that are also home to imperiled animals such as the Mojave Desert tortoise. The government also claims Bundy has ignored cancellation of his grazing leases and defied federal court orders to remove his cattle.
Hundreds of Bundy supporters, some heavily armed, had camped on the road leading to his ranch in a high desert spotted with sagebrush and mesquite trees. Some held signs reading "Americans united against government thugs," while others were calling the rally the "Battle of Bunkerville," a reference to a American Revolutionary War battle of Bunker Hill in Boston.
The large crowd at one point blocked all traffic on Interstate-15. Later, as lanes opened up, motorists honked to support the demonstrators and gave them a thumbs up sign.
Mike Adams, an Iraq War veteran from Salt Lake City, at one point stood below the freeway on sandy ground where government agents and armed demonstrators faced off across a gate.
Adams, who said he served as a tank machine gunner, said the tension reminded him of Iraq. "I started to think I might not walk away from this," he said.
In an interview prior the bureau's announcement, Bundy said he was impressed by the level of support he had received.
"I'm excited that we are really fighting for our freedom. We've been losing it for a long time," Bundy said.
(Writing by Scott Malone and Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by David Gregorio and Lisa Shumaker)