A standoff between federal agents and right-wing militia members came very close to bloodshed last week. Photo by Shannon Bushman via FacebookFor two decades the US government has tried to get Cliven Bundy to remove his cows from federal land, and for two decades the Nevada rancher has steadfastly refused, defying court orders and attempts to negotiate a settlement for the $1.1 million he owes in federal grazing fees. Finally, last week, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) took matters into its own hands and started seizing cattle that had been illegally grazing on government property. Things went downhill from there.
What began as an arcane land dispute rapidly escalated into an armed standoff in the desert. A ragtag band of anti-government militants, Tea Party politicians, and Old West ranchers descended on the area, responding to a call to arms posted by the Bundy family on their blog and circulated throughout the internet by conservatives and libertarians. Spurred on by YouTube videos of physical altercations between federal agents and the Bundys, the protesters aggressively confronted law enforcement, which in turn escalated things by gathering a huge force of armed BLM rangers and FBI agents. On Friday, the Federal Aviation Administration placed a month-long flight restriction over the ranch after the Bundy family posted aerial photos of the assembled authorities.
For right-wing militias and paramilitary groups founded around a collective paranoid belief that the federal government is just looking for an excuse to impose martial law, images of armed federal agents forcibly seizing cows basically means it's DEFCON 1. By Saturday, as many as 1,000 anti-BLM protestors from as far away as Virginia, New Hampshire, and Georgia had set up camp in Bunkerville, an arid patch of land where the BLM was rounding up the Bundy cattle. Packing handguns and assault rifles, the protesters carried signs featuring slogans like “Tyranny Is Alive,” “Where's the Justice?” and “Militia Sighn In [sic]," and many said they were prepared for a shoot-out with the federal government. The mood was such that even Glenn Beck was wary of the crowd, announcing on his show that “there's about 10 or 15 percent of the people who are talking about this online that are truly frightening."
“We were prepared to do whatever it takes to protect their cattle, and their ranch, and their home,” said protester Richard Mack, a former Arizona sheriff who is on the board of Oath Keepers, a militia founded by a former Ron Paul aide and made up mostly of current and former US military personnel and law enforcement. “The government was prepared to do anything, including shooting at unarmed people." (On Monday Mack told Fox News that organizers had been “strategizing to put all the women up front” in a firefight so that the image of the BLM shooting women would be televised.)The government blinked first, announcing Saturday afternoon that it would stop seizing Bundy’s cattle because of "grave concern about the safety of our employees and members of the public." A few hours later, protesters stormed the BLM's corrals, demanding that the bureau release the 400 cows it had already captured."Everyone was up there trying to get the cattle back and the BLM and all of the agents kept yelling, 'Step closer and we'll shoot!' Everybody had their hands up, and we just kept moving forward," said protester Kevin Gillman, a 24-year-old military veteran who volunteered with the state militia coalition Operation Mutual Aid at Bundy Ranch. "They ended up releasing the cattle, because it was either that or shoot us."The government described the situation slightly differently. “Due to escalating tensions, the cattle have been released from the enclosures in order to avoid violence and help restore order," BLM Director Neil Kornze said in a statement.
Bundy’s allies have cautiously declared victory, although most of the protesters I spoke to remain predictably suspicious that the stand-down was just another government “ruse” to lure them into complacency. "We don't want to be taken by surprise by another onslaught, so we're still being careful," Mack said. He estimated that about a third of the protesters had remained at Bundy Ranch this week to provide "security."Emboldened by the strong showing in Nevada, right-wing militia organizers are now looking to capitalize on the momentum, hosting marathon conference calls in which hundreds of militia volunteers strategize and coordinate their next big move."There have been more organizations putting out the word about what's going on, how the [federal government] is taking away our freedoms and liberties," said Gillman, who is one of roughly 400 new volunteers to join Operation Mutual Aid in recent days. Gillman added that he hadn't known much about the militia movement before last week."Most of them are just citizens who want to go out and help the cause of other Americans in need who don't have backup," he said of his right-wing comrades. "I wouldn't necessarily say it's a militia, but we did bring our guns out there, because the federal agents went out there with their sniper rifles and their guns. We're just going to be prepared for whatever [the government] wants to do. It's hard to talk to someone who has a gun unless you have one yourself."
Meanwhile, the tenuous stalemate has basically put the BLM right back where it started. In a statement I was given on Tuesday, the agency insisted that it had not cut a deal with Bundy and that it would still try to force the rancher into compliance through administrative and legal channels. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, also weighed in on the conflict this week, telling Reno’s NBC affiliate KRNV that the conflict isn't finished.“We can’t have an American people that violate the law and then just walk away from it,” Reid said. “So it’s not over.”Legally, Bundy doesn’t have a leg to stand on. His disagreement with the federal government dates back to 1993, when he stopped paying federal grazing fees in response to new regulations aimed at protecting the desert tortoise habitat in Golden Butte, a federally owned 600,000-acre swath of land northeast of Las Vegas where Bundy’s family has been raising cattle since his Mormon ancestors settled there, in the late 1800s. In response, the BLM revoked Bundy’s permit and sued him twice in federal court. Both times, a judge ordered Bundy to get his cows off public land or face fines of $200 per head for each day that he refused to comply. The government now claims that Bundy owes $1.1 million in fines and grazing fees. (The right-wing website Breitbart has compiled all of the court orders—and provided a lengthy analysis—here.)
In response, Bundy has argued that the federal government doesn’t actually own the land in question, and thus doesn’t have the right to tell him what to do with his cows. The land, he says, actually belongs to the state of Nevada—a claim that is very obviously untrue.“I think this is the sovereign state of Nevada,” Bundy told conservative talk-radio host Dana Loesch Thursday. “I abide by all Nevada state laws. But I don’t recognize the United States government as even existing.”Bundy’s larger point—that the feds shouldn’t own 80 percent of the land in Nevada, or nearly 50 percent of land in 11 Western states—demonstrates the long-running tension over state’s rights and federal land-use policies that invariably pick winners and losers among environmental and business interests. Even if Bundy wanted to pay the government fines, he would still be forced to remove his cows from Butte Gold thanks to a 1998 conservation deal that eliminated grazing in the area in exchange for allowing the county to destroy desert tortoise habitats for private development. Bundy is now the sole surviving cattle rancher in Clark County.At the same time, environmentalists have criticized the BLM for not dealing with the Bundys' trespass cattle sooner, and they were outraged this week when the agency called off the roundup. “The BLM monumentally failed to remove the trespass cattle, collect fees, or protect the land for more than 20 years,” Rob Mrowka, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. “Now it backed down in the face of threats and posturing of armed so-called ‘sovereignists.’ This is absolutely pathetic and an insult to ranchers and others who hold permits and pay their required fees to use the public lands.”For most of the Bundys' far-right allies, though, the showdown in Nevada wasn’t as much about the rancher and his land as it was a flashpoint in their growing beef with the federal government."Progressively, the federal government is just getting stronger," Gillman said. "I don't understand why they need to go out there with 200 federal agents and set up sniper positions. I don't see the need for the federal government to take up guns against its own people."We're willing to go as far as they are willing to go," he added. "We're not here for violence… But if they're coming in, guns blaring, to hurt citizens, then we're just going to defend ourselves. We're not going to go out and attack or anything. When someone goes in and takes away your freedoms, the only thing you can do is stand up against them. If you don't stand up against them, how far will they go?"Follow Grace Wyler on Twitter.