Nine years ago, a 68-year-old rancher named Cliven Bundy issued a call to arms from his spread in southwest Nevada near the small desert town of Bunkerville. Mr. Bundy rallied supporters to join him in defending his cattle from the “overreach” of federal officials.
He had been grazing his cows illegally on federal property since 1993, in an area called Gold Butte, now a national monument. Amazingly, he still is.
What unfolded nine years ago was an early rehearsal in right-wing insurrection that arguably culminated in the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the Capitol.
Hundreds of supporters, many of them heavily armed, gathered in Mr. Bundy’s defense in early April 2014 and turned their pistols and rifles on agents from the federal Bureau of Land Management, which had attempted to round up the hundreds of trespassing cows. Mr. Bundy’s rationale was simple: He did not recognize the federal government’s claim to the land. In an embarrassment that was nationally televised and widely celebrated in the circles of right-wing extremists, the B.L.M. officers found themselves outnumbered.
The government backed down, the cows were let go and the Bundys and their supporters shouted victory. Later, a federal judge dismissed more than a dozen felony charges against Mr. Bundy, two of his sons and a supporter, after prosecutors erred in not turning over important evidence that might have helped the defendants. The charges included conspiracy to commit an offense against the nation and assault on a federal officer
Today, with seeming impunity, Mr. Bundy continues running his cattle illegally on federal land that has been permanently closed to livestock grazing since the mid-1990s to protect the endangered desert tortoise and other rare species. The cows are denuding the landscape, trampling the soil, killing native plants and fouling streams that nourish the desert wildlife.
“If you want to see them, I could take you there tomorrow,” Patrick Donnelly, the Great Basin director of the Center for Biological Diversity, said this week of the trespassing cattle.
Earlier this month, Western Watersheds Project, a conservation group, sued the B.L.M. and the U.S. Forest Service, among others, for failing to protect the Mojave Desert tortoise and other species in the Gold Butte area. In a statement, the group cited “the impacts of Cliven Bundy’s 30 years of trespass livestock grazing” and the development of solar farms. “Unsurprisingly, Mojave Desert tortoise populations are in free fall,” the group said.
At the time of the 2014 standoff, Alan O’Neill, who had a similar struggle with Mr. Bundy when he was superintendent of the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, expressed concern that the government had done nothing to stop the scofflaw rancher.
“He calls himself a patriot, and says he loves America,” Mr. O’Neill told The Times. “And yet he says he won’t follow any federal laws. You just can’t let this go by, or everybody is going to be like, ‘If Bundy can break the law, why can’t I?’”
Good question. But you won’t get an answer from the B.L.M., which manages the land that Mr. Bundy’s cattle continue to graze illegally. The agency won’t discuss why Mr. Bundy has been allowed to run roughshod over rules other ranchers follow or how much he owes in fees and fines to federal taxpayers. (As of 2014, it was an estimated $1.1 million.)
As for Mr. Bundy, he did not respond to a request for an interview. But one of his supporters, Vincent Easely II, who said he administers the Facebook page, “Cliven Bundy American Patriot,” did. He pointed to a recent article in The Las Vegas Sun that said that Mr. Bundy “was quoted in 2018 saying that if B.L.M. ever came to seize his cattle over unpaid grazing fees again, they would encounter ‘the very same thing as last time.’” To which Mr. Easely added in an email to me: “It is my belief that if this happens, not hundreds, but thousands” would “converge on the Bundy ranch to stand as a buffer against such action.”
The standoff at Bunkerville might have been a historical footnote, if not for the fact that it helped galvanize and unite disparate militia groups that would end up empowered more than ever in the far-right fever dream of the Trump years.
Two years after the Bunkerville confrontation, one of Mr. Bundy’s sons, Ammon, led an armed takeover of Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, which he occupied with fellow protesters for nearly six weeks. The incursion began as a protest of the imprisonment of two local ranchers for intentionally setting fires that spread to federal land and grew into a stand against federal control of land in the West.
The militias at Bunkerville and Malheur included two groups involved in the January 2021 attack on the Capitol: the Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters, some of whom wore T-shirts emblazoned with an image similar to a photograph of Eric Parker, who became known as the “Bundy ranch sniper,” lying prone on a highway overpass at Bunkerville aiming his semiautomatic rifle at B.L.M. officers.
Several militia members have been convicted of crimes related to their participation in the Capitol attack. While the Bundys were not in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021, the day after the attack, Cliven Bundy signaled his support in a Facebook post from Nevada, writing: “100,000 should have spent the night in the halls, and 100,000 should have protected them.”
And a few days after that, Mr. Bundy, in a radio interview, warned the then-incoming Biden administration to stay away from his cattle. “If we have to walk forward towards guns, which we did at the Bundy ranch, we have to do that,” he said.
Richard Spotts, a former B.L.M. employee, has proposed ways to handle the clan and their errant cows. The government could place a lien on Cliven Bundy’s property and seize his cattle when they go to auction. (Astonishingly, the B.L.M. has done neither.) Federal agents could use a bench warrant to arrest Mr. Bundy, quickly and without fanfare, in a Walmart parking lot.
“You could be creative about finding ways that he’s not going to be able to alert the militia and have 300 people there with bulletproof vests and assault rifles,” Mr. Spotts told Boise State Public Radio last year.
Like his fellow public servant Mr. O’Neill, Mr. Spotts said something has to be done, because it would set a dangerous precedent to let the Bundys walk. “Are we still a country of the rule of law?” he asked.
When it comes to Cliven Bundy, the answer at present is no.
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