10 years after armed standoff with federal agents, Bundy cattle are still grazing disputed rangeland

Apr 13, 2024, 1:03 AM | Updated: 1:52 am

BUNKERVILLE, Nev. (AP) — The words “Revolution is Tradition” stenciled in fresh blue and red paint mark a cement wall in a dry river wash beneath a remote southern Nevada freeway overpass, where armed protesters and federal agents stared each other down through rifle sights 10 years ago.

It was just before noon on a hot and sunny Saturday when backers of cattle rancher Cliven Bundy, including hundreds of men, women and children, made the U.S. Bureau of Land Management quit enforcing court orders to remove Bundy cattle from vast arid rangeland surrounding his modest family ranch and melon farm.

Witnesses later said they feared the sound of a car backfiring would have unleashed a bloodbath. But no shots were fired, the government backed down and some 380 Bundy cattle that had been impounded were set free.

“Since then, we’ve relatively lived in peace,” Ryan Bundy, eldest among 14 Bundy siblings, said in a telephone interview. “The BLM doesn’t contact us, talk to us or bother us.”

“The BLM does not have any comment on this subject,” agency spokesman John Asselin said in response to email inquiries about the standoff, Bundy cattle grazing today in Gold Butte National Monument and the more than $1 million in unpaid grazing fees and penalties the BLM said Bundy owed in 2014.

At the ranch, Cliven Bundy greeted guests this week while cradling one of 74 grandchildren and 21 great-grandchildren that he has with his wife, Carol Bundy.

“We’re all a little bit older,” he said, “but we’re still doing the same thing: ranching.”

Later, watching two of his sons and a friend rope yearling bulls in a pen, the plainspoken and photogenic rancher — who rallied followers through a bullhorn that day saying, “Let’s go get those cattle” — recalled being arrested, jailed for nearly two years and brought to a trial that was dismissed due to prosecutorial misconduct.

“I’ve had that dot on my forehead and on my chest, and I’ve had my family with dots on their foreheads,” the 77-year-old family patriarch said of the feeling of being in target crosshairs. Courtroom evidence later revealed that federal agents with rifles had camped for days in hills around Bundy’s ranch before and during the showdown on April 12, 2014.

His family and followers were unfairly targeted by heavy-handed government agents, Bundy said, but rescued by backers including militia members and supporters he calls “we the people.”

“They were announcing on their bullhorn: ‘You’re defying a federal court order. We demand you to disperse or we will fire on you,’” said Mike Bronson, 68, a family friend from Midway, Utah, who recalled kneeling in a prayer ring in front of the corral beneath the overpass. “That’s exactly what they said. Time after time.”

The outcome of the tense confrontation reverberated. In January 2016, Bundy’s eldest sons, Ammon and Ryan Bundy, and several other men who were at the Bundy ranch in 2014 led a weekslong standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. It ended with their arrests after a protest spokesperson, LaVoy Finicum, was shot dead by state police at an FBI roadblock.

Some heard echoes of Bunkerville and Malheur when rioters clashed with police on Jan. 6, 2021, outside and inside the halls of Congress and temporarily blocked certification of the 2020 presidential election.

“Bunkerville was an early warning sign of the MAGA/Trump movement,” said Ian Bartrum, a University of Nevada, Las Vegas, law professor who has studied and written about the standoff and federal land policy. He cited “a growing militia movement looking for someone to fight.”

“I think we can safely say, 10 years later, the Bundys won that fight, and federal regulators don’t seem at all eager to try again,” Bartrum said. “We have bigger problems than cattle on public land at this point.”

In court, federal prosecutors cast the Bunkerville confrontation as an insurrection against the U.S. government. Nineteen people from 11 states, including Bundy and four sons, were arrested in 2016 on charges including conspiracy, assault on a federal officer and firearms counts. Most remained jailed for nearly two years.

Five defendants pleaded guilty before trial, several were acquitted of all counts and some were convicted of lesser charges. One remains in federal prison. No Bundy family member was convicted of a crime.

Today, family members estimate that more than 700 Bundy cattle graze widely in the scrubby green Virgin River valley surrounding the 160-acre (64.7-hectare) Bundy ranch and in Gold Butte, a scenic and archaeologically rich Mojave Desert expanse half the size of the state of Delaware that then-President Barack Obama designated a national monument in December 2016.

Conservation groups including the Center for Biological Diversity and Western Watersheds Project are suing to prod the government to remove cattle and protect the desert tortoise, a species deemed in 1990 to be threatened by habitat loss that advocates blame on grazing.

“The desert tortoise is at the heart of it,” said Erik Molvar, Western Watersheds executive director. “Cattle continue to graze illegally … causing irreversible damage to ecological values.”

“I think you can look at the Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6 and draw a straight line to Malheur and Bunkerville,” Molvar added, “as emblematic of insurrectionist movements in the United States and the failure of federal prosecutors to fully enforce the laws.”

Bundy argues the federal government does not have authority to regulate lands his Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints family settled some 150 years ago. He insists questions of local sovereignty have never been answered to his satisfaction. He says he believes a jury would agree.

Arden Bundy, the youngest son at age 26, has a social media following with YouTube videos titled “The Bundy Ranch.” Wearing body cameras, he and brother Clancy Bundy and cowhand Cache Burnside ride hard on horseback roping bulls across the scrubby range, aided by the family dog, Kaylie. They call it “gully jumping.”

The April 2014 standoff was a victory, Arden Bundy said, because “nobody got killed and the cows came back.”

Asked what would happen if the government tried again to round up Bundy cattle, he was direct.

“If we have to call people, we’ll call all our followers from YouTube and social media,” Arden Bundy said.

“There was 1,000 there last time,” Cliven Bundy said. “There’ll be 10,000 there next time.”

United States News

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10 years after armed standoff with federal agents, Bundy cattle are still grazing disputed rangeland