Leah Sottile | Longreads | May 2018 | 29 minutes (7,300 words)
Since Cliven Bundy took in his first desert breath as a free man this past January, the old cowboy has found himself more in ballrooms and meeting rooms and on stages across the West than back in the saddles he fought so hard to sit in again.
Just two days after his release, he stood in front of the Las Vegas Metro Police Department in Las Vegas, bullhorn in hand, goading the sheriff to come outside: “Is this man going to stand up and protect our life, liberty, and property?” he asked the small crowd gathered around him, smartphones livestreaming his words. The sheriff never emerged.
“My defense is a fifteen-second defense: I graze my cattle only on Clark County, Nevada, land, and I have no contract with the federal government,” Bundy told his flock.
Later that month, on a rural Montana stage flanked by ruffled red curtains, there he stood in jeans and boots and an ash-gray sport coat as a crowd of a couple hundred welcomed him with whoops and whistles fit for rural royalty. “I have a fifteen-second defense,” he said. The crowd listened, rapt.
And there he was again, in February, on an amateur YouTube talk show, in a blue plaid shirt and bolo tie, expounding for well beyond 15 seconds on his ideas about government.
If Cliven Bundy was a star among constitutional literalists after the standoff in 2014, two years in jail transformed the old man and his family into the full-fledged glitterati of the far, far right.
His trademark 15-second defense line is mostly true: Cliven has no contract with the federal government and, yet, continues to graze his cows illegally on public land.
But it’s all the ideas that come after his 15-second spiel — like, that the Constitution explicitly says that the federal government can’t own land — that are false. The Bundys’ beliefs about the Constitution have been definitively, unequivocally disproven. They’re not true. Not under the Equal Footing Doctrine, not under the Property Clause. They’re theories that are “simply wrong,” says John Ruple, an associate professor at the University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law.
“These are arguments that seem to come back generationally,” he says. “But they’ve been refuted over and over and over again.”
The way Ruple describes how the Bundys interpret the Constitution sounds a lot like how they interpret LDS scripture, too: picking what works for them, forgetting the rest.
“There’s a tendency to look at the text of the Constitution, to cherry-pick certain provisions while ignoring others,” Ruple says. “And to completely ignore two hundred–plus years of jurisprudence where the Supreme Court and other courts have gone to great lengths to interpret what those provisions of the Constitution mean.”
Ruple’s hardly alone in that opinion.
Michael Blumm, who helped create the Environmental and Natural Resources Law program at Lewis and Clark Law School, told me in 2017 that “What they were claiming the law was is not true.” And earlier this year, when I reached out to Mark Squillace, a professor from University of Colorado Law School, to get a third opinion — to see if there’s even a sliver of merit to what the Bundys say — he said the law is clear.
“When the government tried to enforce the law against the Bundys, they responded by assaulting federal officers under a property right claim that no federal court in this country would uphold,” he told me.
But none of that matters to the Bundys. The opinions of legal scholars are trivial to them, and they matter even less to the people who follow them with such unflinching loyalty. When Bureau of Land Management officers tried to do their job — to follow federal court orders to impound the family’s trespassing cows — they were met by guns pointed at them by people willing to end lives if it meant protecting Cliven Bundy’s.
It’s almost hard to believe that this is just a fight over cows or a tortoise. And during the short-lived Nevada trial, Cliven’s attorney, Bret Whipple, hinted at another reason for all of this mayhem — besides religion.
Whipple told the jury that Westerners have been fighting over water for so long that even Mark Twain purportedly said, “Whiskey is for drinkin’ and water is for fightin’.”
Except for the whiskey part, it’s the perfect slogan for the Bundys and the movement that has congealed around the family. On the one hand, quoting Twain colors the Bundy situation in sepia tones: a Wild West battle over a resource most people in the country don’t worry about drying up or being taken away. And on the other hand, it’s a perfect slogan for a cause being pushed forward by Bundy’s sons — many of whom dress like cowboys, but few of whom actually work as ranchers. According to a 2011 interview with a Twain biographer, the quote is fake.
“It’s a great quote,” Joe Fulton told McLatchey News, “but I really don’t believe that Twain ever said it.”
To most people around the country, it might seem crazy to do battle over water. But in parts of the West like bone-dry Bunkerville, Nevada, water is power. The land around Bundy Ranch is powdery, cracked earth, and what little rain falls here is so scarce, the Bundys collect it in anything they can for their cattle — like old tractor tires.
In this hot and unforgiving swath of the Southwest, it seems insane to depend on agriculture to make a living. But for the Bundys — who have chosen that life — you can almost start to understand how they’d do anything to keep that water.
But it isn’t ranchers and farmers who have flocked to the family’s side en masse.
Near Burns, as the Bundys held the wildlife refuge and told ranchers they should rip up their grazing contracts, ranchers pushed back. Scott Franklin — a fourth-generation rancher in the area — challenged Ryan Bundy at a meeting.
“Please. So there’s the Constitution in your hand,” he said. “That’s as it is written. And there’s the Constitution as you guys define it and argue it. … But in the end, who decides what the Constitution says?”
A Bundy supporter yelled in response: “The people!”
“The Supreme Court,” Franklin answered.
Ryan Bundy said no, he was wrong.
Other local ranchers weren’t so interested in asking the Bundys about their views. Georgia Marshall, a 64-year-old rancher with grazing permits on Malheur refuge land, stood up at a different town meeting and rallied locals to ignore the Bundys, to stay the course.
“Let’s not destroy what we are doing because we think we have to make a stand for everything that’s happened in the goddamn past!” she yelled. She talked about all the work that had been done by locals to make sure everyone had a say in how the land was used. “This is our time now! It is not what we did a hundred years ago or sixty years ago, or thirty years ago. It’s our moment right now.
“I’m proud to be a rancher, and I’m not going to let some other people be my face,” she said. “I am me!”
In a lot of cases, the Bundy supporters aren’t even rural people. They are folks far, far on the fringe. They are people who are very, very angry at the government. They are suspicious of the government. They are people who blame it for the losses they’ve had — from folded businesses to traffic tickets — and who see the Bundys as some mirror image of that loss.
Loss, too, has been the one thing that’s been consistent from generation to generation for the Bundys, Cliven’s father’s side of the family. The story of Cliven’s father, grandfather, and great-grandfather is a story of men constantly trying to build something for themselves and failing. That’s the Bundy legacy.
For Cliven and his sons, keeping a hold of the water here in the desert could mean preventing their family and its way of life from going extinct.
* * *
“I always thought of the Bundys as a tough-hearted and rugged family, the kind of people who could be cut to their knees by noon and back on their feet by evening. They were survivors,” writes Lyman Hafen in his book Far From Cactus Flat.
When you are as far into a story as I am into this one, you pass up social obligations to read from a stack of books on water law, the history of Western lands, the stories of generations of families that are not your own. I would feel like a creep if it weren’t all so fascinating.
Hafen’s book is all about the roots of the Bundy family on the Arizona Strip — that thin section of Arizona north of the Grand Canyon that runs along the southern Utah border.
“I later also learned that they are a clan you would never want to cross,” he writes. “Some of them had a mean streak that ran as deep as their spirits ran high.”
The Bundys, like the Leavitts on Cliven’s mother’s side, settled in the Arizona Strip in the 1890s. Where Dudley Leavitt spent some two decades bouncing around Utah before settling in Nevada and Arizona, Abraham Bundy — Cliven’s great-grandfather — came directly to Bunkerville.
Abraham — born in Illinois — homesteaded in Nebraska with his wife, Ella, and like many Mormons of the time, eventually drove two covered wagons packed with their children straight to Bunkerville in August 1895. Among those little Bundys was their son Roy.
But the Bundys didn’t stay long, moving between Bunkerville and Littlefield, Arizona for the next several years—according to his 1946 obituary, working “in the cotton fields”—before relocating to Sonora, Mexico. They lived in Mexico for about a dozen years, where Abraham became “well-known for his grazing, farming and logging activities.”
The turn of the century was a time of fear and tension for Mormons after the 1882 Edmunds Act failed to curb polygamy in the Utah territory, and those practicing plural marriage were forced to go underground or to leave the country altogether. Many fled to Mexico — to the polygamist colonies being established there in Sonora. (Hafen, in his book, makes a point to say that Abraham wasn’t a polygamist.) They stayed until around 1911.
But Mexico didn’t stick for them. South-of-the-border Mormon colonies were forced to evacuate during the Mexican Revolution.
“I had the privilege of looking down the barrels of loaded guns in the hands of Mexican ‘Red Flaggers,’” Roy Bundy recalled in the official magazine of the Church of Latter-Day Saints in 1945. “I also had bullets whistle over my head and cut the leaves from the trees. We became refugees.”
Abraham and Ella fled with their family of ten to a refugee camp in Arizona, then across the Pacific Northwest, back to Utah and, finally, on Thanksgiving Day 1916, to Mount Trumbull, Arizona.
But like everywhere the family went, it didn’t last. Drought stamped out homesteads on the high plateau. To get water, the Bundys had to haul it from at least 11 miles away.
“People couldn’t live, so they upped and left,” Cliven’s uncle told the Arizona Republic in 1982.
The Bundys stayed as long as they could — their livestock competing on the arid land with the massive herds belonging to wealthy ranching tycoons. In 1934, Congress passed the Taylor Grazing Act in order to prevent overgrazing and curb the conflicts between ranchers and herders throughout the west.
But it’s also likely a reason why Mount Trumbull didn’t work out — the family might have had claim to the land, but it was useless without water.
Abraham was buried there in 1946, three months after his great-grandson Cliven was born.
Cliven’s parents, David and Bodel, bought a ranch over the Nevada border — the place where the Bundy story of struggle continued into its next chapter: Bundy Ranch.
* * *
In Bunkerville, David and his family “finally settle down, they’re finally doing the ranching, they’re finally trying to develop roots,” JJ MacNab tells me over the phone. She’s an expert on domestic anti-government extremism, a fellow at the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security at George Washington University, and author of the forthcoming book The Seditionists.
Once the family was settled, something happened no one could have seen coming.“The federal government decides to blow up a bunch of nuclear weapons upwind from them,” MacNab says.
I call up Leisl Carr Childers to hear more about nuclear weapons testing in Nevada. Now a professor of history at University of Northern Iowa, she has written extensively on both the Sagebrush Rebellion and the effects of Nevada nuclear tests on small ranching communities like Bunkerville.
She tells me that while testing weapons in the Marshall Islands, the government started conducting above-ground nuclear tests in the United States between 1951 and 1963.
“There were several sites that could have been chosen, but Nevada was the logical choice because it was the biggest piece of real estate and the least populated area of the U.S.,” she says. “The size of the risk of doing continental nuclear testing at this site versus all the others is so small that we don’t really think anyone is going to be harmed.
“The tacit assumption is that no one would really be affected by nuclear testing if we do it at this location,” she says. “That was profoundly untrue.”
Communities like Bunkerville and Mesquite, in Nevada, and St. George, in Utah — a town heavily populated with Mormons — were directly downwind of the test sites, and in the 1950s, liaisons were sent to those communities to warn people to stay inside.
“If it looked like it was going to dump on a populated area, they’d race to that area and tell them to go inside,” Carr Childers says. “It scared a lot of people.”
Residents would hear warnings like this:
Ladies and gentlemen: we interrupt this program to bring you important news. Word has just been received from the Atomic Energy Commission that due to a change in wind direction the residue from this morning’s atomic detonation is drifting in the direction of St. George.
“The people doing the testing didn’t really recognize how much interface those people living in those communities had with their local environment,” she says. “They were hunting off the land. They were drinking milk that was produced from cows that ate grass that had fallout particles on it.”
Cows developed lesions. People looked like they had sunburns. One bomb, called Harry, was later nicknamed “Dirty Harry” after the fallout fell directly on St. George. As it hit, children were outside playing on playgrounds. Farmers and sheep herders were out in their fields, wondering what the fine ash falling from the sky was. People said the air tasted like metal.
And soon their hair was falling out in clumps. Their fingernails and toenails dropped off.
And as years passed, people all throughout the Arizona Strip, including in Bunkerville, developed various forms of cancer. People qualified for compensation from the government.
But Carr Childers says no amount of money could repair the damage done by the tests.
“The families in that area have a very serious sense of distrust of the federal government, because in no way during this nuclear testing program did the federal government ever give them the consideration that they wanted,” she says. “It wasn’t so long ago that Mormons had a very negative relationship with the state because the federal government made them give up a lot of things to become a state.”
Carr Childers used to work at the Nevada Test Site Oral History Project, and she recalls one interview she did that stuck with her: “As one woman said … ‘We are the guinea pigs of the Cold War. We’re the guinea pigs of the nuclear testing program. And nobody cares.’”
From where MacNab sits, too, the story that came in the 100 years before Cliven Bundy was even born tells so much about his worldview.
“Every time his family, for like 150 years, tried to settle down and just be a comfortable ranching family, they got moved on,” MacNab says. “There’s a very sympathetic story underneath all this.
“Sometimes, people who are angry at the government actually have a reason to be angry,” she says. “That doesn’t mean he went about it in the right way.”
By the time 2014 rolled around and it looked like Cliven was going to lose his cows once and for all, he was willing to accept the help of anyone who would listen to his version of events.
Cliven’s story was like a magnet for people looking to square off with the feds — conspiracy theorists, armed militias, and fringe individuals who sustain their anti-government hatred with a steady diet of YouTube videos, 4Chan forums, internet comment sections, and Fox News. That’s who offered help at Bundy Ranch — his loyal congregation and doting army.
Richard Mack, an ex-lawman and right-wing “constitutional sheriff,” told the media gathered in Bunkerville about the Patriots action plans: “We were actually strategizing to put all the women up in front,” Mack said. “If they’re going to start shooting, it’s going to be women that are going to be televised all across the world getting shot by these rogue federal officers.”
It’s a tactic similar to one used by international terrorist groups like the Islamic State.
Cliven’s story was like a magnet for people looking to square off with the feds — conspiracy theorists, armed militias, and fringe individuals who sustain their anti-government hatred with a steady diet of YouTube videos, 4Chan forums, internet comment sections, and Fox News.
Not long after the cows came back to the ranch, Cliven explained to TV cameras some other opinions he holds — giving the world a better sense of what he really believes: “I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro,” he explained proudly to cameras. “When I go to north Las Vegas and I would see these little government houses, and in front of that government house … there was always at least a half a dozen people settin’ on the porch. They didn’t have nothing to do.”
“So now what do they do? They abort their young children. They put their young men in jail because they never learned how to pick cotton,” he said. “I’ve often wondered, were they better off as slaves? Pickin’ cotton and havin’ family lives … or are they better off under government subsidy?”
These ideas weren’t unique to Cliven. Bundy was quoting from anti-communist, anti-socialist Mormon Cleon Skousen and mimicking the ideas of Ezra Taft Benson — those Mormon figureheads whose writings inspired the Nay Book.
MacNab says sentiments like those made some rural people during Cliven’s younger years flock to the John Birch Society — a group that was championed by high-profile LDS leaders Skousen and Benson.
The John Birch Society was also embraced by one of the most influential figures in the militia movement: William Potter Gale, the founder of Posse Comitatus, a proud racist, and the self-proclaimed minister of Christian Identity who, according to Daniel Levitas’ book The Terrorist Next Door: The Militia Movement and the Radical Right, “believed that white Anglo-Saxon Christians were the true descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel.”.
MacNab says the intent of John Birch was to keep the anti-communist tenets of McCarthyism in the zeitgeist. “[It] was formed to take over when McCarthyism died down,” she says. “That they hadn’t done enough to oust the reds from office, and it wasn’t too long before they thought the President of the United States was secretly controlled by a Jewish cabal.”
She says that’s not that different from some of the conspiracy theories floating around today in the post-Obama era.
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While the Nay Book — composed by Keith Nay, Cliven’s neighbor — is like a love child of the John Birch Society and the White Horse Prophecy, the people who’ve flocked to the Bundys’ aid often refer to themselves as members of the Patriot Movement. MacNab explains that the Patriot movement became something of a catchall for those people who were too extreme even for the John Birch Society.
“You look at a lot of the early leaders of the group, and it was usually people that were kicked out of the John Birch Society,” she says.
And while Cliven continued to espouse the ideas of the John Birch Society, he became affiliated with a different kind of anti-government group — one that took hold in rural Nevada, and which soon found mainstream acceptance by some of the countries most prominent leaders: The Sagebrush Rebels.
* * *
When Cliven Bundy was in his 30s, a movement was stirring in the West among ranchers angry about new attention that conservationists and environmentals were getting from federal officials. Americans wanted public lands opened up for recreation. They wanted to see endangered species protected. They wanted lands kept pristine.
The 1976 passage of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) closed the door on the frontier era — the time when people could head west, farm 160 acres of land, apply for a deed, and see that land become theirs.
Before FLPMA, “no one questioned the ranchers’ right to use that grazing range,” Carr Childers tells me. But after FLPMA, they had to share the conversation about the land with people they never had to before.
Some ranchers didn’t like it. They stood up, largely advocating for public lands to be transferred from federal control to state hands. They called themselves Sagebrush Rebels, and by the late ’70s, they were all over the press. A glossy September 1979 Newsweek cover showed a cowboy atop a horse with the headline, “The Angry West: Get Off Our Backs, Uncle Sam.”
When the Sagebrush Rebellion was first stirring, Cliven was still finding his way as a proud rural Nevadan. He earned Future Farmers of America ribbons for his welding skills. And by the time the movement was getting national attention, he was an active member of the Nevada Land Action Association, which advocated for federal transfer of lands to the states.
In states like Nevada, most of the land mass is controlled by the federal government. And when the feds decided to equally weigh all of the interests in the land — camping, hiking, ranching, mining — it meant that some rural people felt pushed aside. It made it seem like the priority users were the people who lived in the cities across the West — the Las Vegases and Denvers and Portlands — and not the people trying to earn a living off the land in their own backyard.
“You set up this automatic tension,” Carr Childers says. “The Sagebrush Rebellion is really about a conflict between ranchers, in part, and miners and traditional users, and people who live in urban areas who think about public lands differently.”
Rebels advocated for land to be transferred to the state level — the idea being that local control would mean keeping ranchers, miners, and loggers in business longer. And to that end, even soon-to-be President Ronald Reagan was on board. “Count me in as a rebel,” he said in 1980 on the campaign trail.
But by the ’80s, the movement had lost steam. The Reagan White House wasn’t as focused on pleasing environmentalists. In a way, the rebels were getting what they wanted. The administration sold off land, cleared a path for extractive industries.
But, even so, Bundy and his neighbor, Keith Nay, were still fired up. They wanted the land back.
At a Utah livestock auction in 1989, Bundy rallied support for his cause.
“We’ve got a lifestyle that nobody else in the country has, and we’re proud of it and we want to keep it,” Bundy told the cattlemen.
Nay wrote a letter in 1989 to the Daily Spectrum when the desert tortoise was being listed as endangered.
“As I sit and listen to the Habitat Conservation Plan of the turtle — I was thinking — are we really adult human beings with a higher intelligence — to sit here making plans for the turtle — instead of trying to help people,” he wrote. The heavily hyphenated letter was titled “Put People First.”
“Farmers and ranchers that produce food being shut down all for the turtle,” he wrote. “Is it all worth it? Are any of the so-called endangered species worth the cost of humans?”
Nay’s ideas, responded one reader, “would leave us with a world of only meat, vegetables and homo sapiens. All other forms of life would be eradicated.”
We’ve got a lifestyle that nobody else in the country has, and we’re proud of it and we want to keep it.
Bundy and Nay saw politicians like Senator Harry Reid, who made way for protected wilderness areas around Las Vegas, as just one head of a federal hydra dead set on gobbling up their lifestyle.
“The federal government just wants control of us,” Nay told a reporter in 1995. “But I’m not going to be controlled.”
“They tap into this sincere frustration, this pain felt across a significant part of the United States population, those working class communities,” says John Ruple, from University of Utah’s law school. “The federal government is an easy boogeyman. It’s easy to put them up as the cause, the problem, the enemy.”
For Nay and Bundy, they might not have been able to beat the government, but they could mythologize themselves.
“If you somehow win and you can defeat them, then you’re David and you slew Goliath, and people are going to sing songs about you, and you’re a hero,” Ruple says. “You characterize the federal government as this overreaching, indifferent, distant enemy. If you fight and you lose, then still you’re going to paint yourself as the one person who was brave enough and strong enough to stand up against this overarching federal government. You’re still a winner.”
The men weren’t the only ones positioning themselves as warriors against tyranny. Other high profile fights with the feds happening hundreds of miles from Bundy Ranch were dominating headlines.
First, in 1992, near the Canadian border, Randy Weaver — an Aryan Nations sympathizer with apocalyptic religious beliefs — holed himself up in an off-grid cabin after he failed to show up to court for charges related to selling sawed-off shotguns. When the Special Operations Group of the U.S. marshals swarmed his Ruby Ridge, Idaho, cabin, Weaver, his son, and a friend traded shots with the federal agents; after the brief skirmish, Weaver’s teenage son and an agent were killed. When the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team (HRT) responded the next day, a sniper shot Weaver’s wife, Vicki, in the head as she held their infant daughter.
In 1993, when federal agents raided the Waco, Texas, compound of an apocalyptic religious group called the Branch Davidians — led by polygamist David Koresh — it resulted in a 51-day standoff. During that time, all kinds of people with anti-government beliefs flocked to Waco to watch the standoff play out, including a man named Timothy McVeigh. The siege ended with the deaths of four ATF agents and 82 Branch Davidians.
“Cliven Bundy stopped paying his permit fees at the beginning of the Waco standoff,” MacNab tells me. “I think he understood it was a good time to make waves. That they’ll leave you alone.”
* * *
Cliven Bundy and his friends started pushing things in 1994, testing the waters and seeing what they could get away with.
On the Fourth of July 1994, in Nye County, Nevada — the third largest county in the country, where the most of the land is controlled by the feds — a bunch of men in cowboy hats and big belt buckles congregated around an old yellow bulldozer. Someone sang the national anthem, and a man in a white shirt and cowboy hat started to speak.
The man was Nye County Commissioner Dick Carver, who, at the time, was pushing to see all of the federal land there transferred back to the county. He wiped tears from his eyes.
“This is somethin’ that’s near and dear to my heart today, and there’s nobody in this world that’s gonna stop me,” Carver said. “Today, the Fourth of July 1994 … I hereby declare and promise that I will do everything in my power as a Nye county commissioner to bring the government back to the people and protect your rights.”
He finished his speech, and then he jumped aboard a bulldozer, fired up the engine, and plowed it directly through a stand of quaking aspen trees and across a creek known to be home to endangered fish. He backed up and did it again. And again until he’d reopened a road that Forest Service had closed to prevent overgrazing. As he did it, a Forest Service ranger held up a sign that he was trespassing. The crowd cheered him on.
If you watch videos of the event on YouTube, you see that just before Carver hops atop the yellow bulldozer, a camcorder scans the crowd. Guys with big cowboy hats and big belt buckles stand around, small Constitutions peeking out of shirt pockets. Among them is a cowboy in a purple shirt, holding a camera. It’s Cliven Bundy.
A Los Angeles Times reporter at the scene interviewed him. “As Carver sat aboard the Cat, he worried that someone would kill [the ranger], and he prayed that the man wouldn’t draw a gun on him.”
Levitas writes about the incident in his book. At the time, federal employees in Nevada were fearful after “three bombings of federal property in the state targeted the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management from 1993 to 1995.” Forest Service employees were given the option to not wear their official uniforms. A BLM director in Idaho encouraged employees to “avoid areas with a known potential for conflict.”
Carver’s stunt made it to the front cover of Time magazine, despite media saying his bulldozing “seems to have done little … [for]the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion II he sparked across the West.”
The fight for state control of lands, no matter how badly men like Carver and Bundy and Nay wanted it, was an uphill battle — one Nay would never see to the end.
His widow, Marilyn Cattoor, recalled yelling out into the desert for her husband. “I’d holler, ‘Hey, Nay!,’” she told the Daily Spectrum, a St. George newspaper, “because he could always hear me. But there was no answer.”
Nay died suddenly — way out in the desert he fought so hard to keep, with his dog beside him.
I called Cattoor in February to ask about water rights. I’d noticed something interesting — that one month before his sudden death, he fused his water rights together with Cliven’s. I wanted to understand why in a place where water is so scarce they would do that. Cattoor was blunt with her answer: share the range, share the water.
Before we got off the phone, she says that it was all the fighting over the land and water that killed her husband. The stress was too much, she says.
“He just dropped dead.”
* * *
By the mid-1990s, perhaps one of the most radical people around Cliven Bundy was his own son, Ryan.
In 1994, the 22-year-old was in the driver’s seat of his Ford pickup at an entrance booth at Utah’s Zion National Park, 90 miles away from Bunkerville. An officer at the park had stopped Ryan, suspecting he might have filled up his tank without paying at a nearby gas station — he’d just heard a call come in over his radio a few minutes before matching Ryan’s description.
Now Ryan was refusing to pay the entrance fee at the park, and he hit the gas, gunning into the park. The officer chased him down, lights and sirens blaring, and when Bundy finally pulled over, he was confrontational. “He continued to insist the federal government has no right to stop him and he did not believe in its authority,” the officer wrote in a report. He told the officer that the government had no right to own land, and so he didn’t owe any fees — and he fled again. “I had to back away to avoid being struck,” the officer wrote.
A 40-minute chase ensued, with several officers pursuing Bundy for 20 miles. Up ahead in the park, an officer threw a spike strip across the road — but Bundy saw it, swerved, narrowly missing hitting another officer. At a second roadblock, he finally gave up.
But the young Bundy never faced federal charges. I ask JJ MacNab why, and she says it seems like the feds were afraid. Forest Service buildings were being bombed. Waco and Ruby Ridge were fresh in everyone’s minds. “If you talk to former BLM employees and park police and department of forestry … they were very disheartened that someone would threaten to kill them and no one would do anything about it because it was too dangerous of a time to prosecute,” she says.
Soon Ryan Bundy was following in his father’s footsteps, writing an editorial in the local newspaper about the family’s beliefs about the Constitution. In 2006, he made a run for a county commissioner seat in Iron County, Utah, where he gave a speech urging locals to “stop this federal monster.” That same year, a local newspaper ran both Ryan and Ammon Bundy’s names in its “delinquent tax list.” And in 2008, Ryan made another run for elected office — telling the newspaper that at age 35, he had “twenty-plus years” of political experience.
By then the Sagebrush Rebellion had cooled down. Keith Nay was dead.
Cliven Bundy didn’t need to recruit cowboys anymore to back him up.
His sons were the leaders of a new rebellion — one he created, where cowboys and militiamen fought side by side.
I asked Bundy supporters about it during the trial in Nevada. Neil Wampler, the 70-year-old hippie from California, told me that at Bunkerville, he saw something unbelievable in Ammon Bundy. He wasn’t just a soldier in small skirmish over cows, but a general leading a battle against federal tyranny.
“Generalship is seeing the dynamic of the moment, seeing the possibilities, the contingencies, seeing what forces you have in your hand, the cards you have to play and playing them boldly,” Wampler told me.
The army the Bundys have amassed includes some of the most aggressive men they could find. Among them is Jon Ritzheimer, the veteran who made headlines for wearing T-shirts that read Fuck Islam and protesting outside mosques around America, haranguing Muslim Americans. Before aiding the takeover of the refuge in Oregon, Ritzheimer famously made a YouTube video telling his children that he had to fight the federal government because “Daddy swore an oath.”
Also in the Bundy circle is Gary Hunt, a man who has openly discussed his relationship with Timothy McVeigh on his blog. McVeigh went to Waco, Texas, to witness the standoff between federal agents and the Branch Davidians, and in 1995, bombed a federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people. McVeigh later said the bombing was retaliation for Ruby Ridge and Waco.
In the past, Hunt had blogged about being “supportive [of] McVeigh’s motivation” for the attack. He said, hypothetically, that if blowing up the federal building in Oklahoma City was his job to do, “I would have bombed the building at night.”
Another vet who’s joined the Bundys is Ryan Payne, who was involved in militias in Montana. In the months before the Malheur standoff, Payne brainstormed anti-government actions with a group dubbed Operation Mutual Defense on phone calls tapped by the FBI. Both Ritzheimer and Hunt were on those calls, too, and they spoke of taking over the courthouse in Burns, Oregon, breaking federal prisoners from custody, and interviewing and potentially detaining resettled Muslim refugees while dangling bacon in front of their faces. They talked about Ammon Bundy’s idea to set federal land on fire. Payne also spoke of pressuring the Hammonds to accept their help, “whether [they] want it or not.”
After he came home from Iraq, Payne operated a dune buggy business before it was forced to shutter by new stricter emissions regulations in California. He also believed in conspiracies: that slavery never existed in the United States, that “in most states you have the lawful authority to kill a police officer that is unlawfully trying to arrest you.” He believed that the government used their regulations to undermine everyday Americans. So when Payne read online that the Bundys were being bothered by the government, he offered his help and promised to bring his armed militia friends.
Many of Bundys followers are people who traffic in conspiracy theories, who view the government as constantly overreaching. These are people who considered themselves American in their blood, but who think being American also means being white and Christian. They were the ones who were outraged that a president could be black and have a name like Obama.
Cliven welcomed these people as his flock.
All this hate gave him — gave them — wing.
And Cliven told them, Listen. Just do whatever it takes.
By the way the Bundys have chosen to do battle, you’d think their water rights were written in gold ink. But they’re not much to look at. Plain white certificates. They read, “The State of Nevada Proof of Appropriation of Water for Stock Watering Purposes” across the top. They have names like Juanita Springs, Government Spring, Darling Mine.
But those water rights give some sense of permanence in the desert. “No matter who holds water rights after this, those who have vested water rights will have first cut of the water,” Carr Childers tells me.
When Cliven stopped paying the government to graze legally in the early 1990s, he didn’t have many of the water claims he does now. In 1997, he acquired more with the help of Nay.
Their names are handwritten at the top of each certificate — Keith Nay and Cliven D. Bundy — and they’re all signed on the same day: October 21, 1997, just 27 days before Nay died.
“It’s not common to see two different family names on water rights,” Carr Childers says. “It’s not unheard of, but it’s not common.
“There’s a story there. That story has to do with how the two men felt about each other, how the families felt about each other,” she says. “You’re giving over power. You would not do that unless you really, really loved and trusted the other person.”
Those rights are vested — which means they’re for water that has been in use since before the state of Nevada controlled water rights, likely when Nay’s ancestors first arrived in the area.
But the problem Bundy has is that his water — which is regulated by the state of Nevada — is situated in the desert, beyond his property, right smack in the middle of land managed by the federal government.
And the thing with vested water rights is if you don’t use them, you could lose them. It’s called “beneficial use.” To use those rights, a rancher would need to build troughs and pipelines to collect water for cattle and disperse the animals across the range. To build that stuff on public land, the BLM would have to authorize it. And failure to continue using those water rights could mean the state could consider them forfeited or abandoned.
I have to stop right here and remind myself of one thing: Cliven Bundy only had to pay roughly one dollar per cow every month to be able to keep this right he holds so dear. By not doing so, he’s offered up the thing that’s so important to him — his water — for the taking.
Years before the standoff on Bundy Ranch, another Nevada rancher, Wayne Hage, was arguing in court over the government’s claims that he’d been grazing his cattle on federal land without a permit. The case centered on water, too.
After decades of squabbles with the Forest Service caused some of Hage’s grazing permits to be cancelled, he continued to use his vested water rights by trespassing his cows on public land. He said there was no other way for him to use those rights.
At first, a court partially ruled in Hage’s favor, but then a higher court overturned that decision — saying that owning a water right doesn’t give someone the right to trespass on public land to access it.
Just last year, Nevada’s state legislature passed a law that requires all vested water rights owners to file proof of those claims by the year 2027. Failing to do that would mean those vested rights would be considered abandoned.
Remember that viral video of Ammon Bundy being tased just days before the standoff? When the protesters were blocking a big dump truck that’s trying to get through the crowd, and right before he gets zapped by BLM officers, Ammon jumps up on the side and peers into the deep bed of the truck.
There were no cows in it.
Inside were the Bundy’s range improvements — the infrastructure they’d built to show they were using that water.
The very thing that proved they were still there.
Back on that stage in the rural Montana schoolhouse where Cliven Bundy arrived weeks after being released from jail, speakers talk for several hours about liberty and tyranny, tyranny and liberty. They are a yin and yang that are mashed into the maximum number of sentences by each speaker, as if one can’t be said without the other.
Roger Roots opens the show. He’s a member of the Bundy legal counsel. “How many of you know that the federal government as of midnight last night has been shut down?” The crowd cheers. “We have a lot to be thankful for,” he says.
Finally, Cliven takes the microphone.
At first, it’s difficult to track what he’s saying: something about 30 years of sniper rifles being pointed at him, an “army” that came to get him at Bundy Ranch. He talks about holding someone accountable for this blatant government overreach.
“Who would I hold accountable? Who would you say I should hold accountable?” he asks the crowd.
“Obama!” a man yells without hesitation. The crowd cheers its support.
Cliven asks for more names.
“Hillary!” they eagerly shout. “Harry Reid!” “The sheriff!”
“Why would Cliven Bundy be mad at the federal government?” he asks them again.
“Cause they violated your rights!” a woman calls matter-of-factly from the crowd.
“No, no, no,” Cliven clucks back.
People aren’t following, so Cliven pulls out the line that seems to work so well these days.
“I have a fifteen-second defense,” he says.
Literally hundreds of people have come to hear him speak, to sit there for hours to say the same thing he says over and over again. I’m watching the livestream at home, a little surprised so many people have turned out to hear him repeat the same things he’s said so many times before.
You have to wonder if any of them even see him as a rancher anymore, or if at this point they only see Cliven Bundy as a symbol. As proof.
He is living, breathing evidence in the flesh before them of just how much the federal government can make one person suffer.
At the end of the program, Shawna Cox passes a microphone around to the men and women gathered so they can ask questions.
She hands it to a man with a graying beard, in a ball cap and jeans. His name is Ryan Busse.
“Mr. Bundy stated that the Constitution is obviously the supreme law of the land. I could not agree more. We had someone here tonight say that the federal government does not own land. I could not agree more. We the people own this land,” he said. People clapped.
He introduces himself as a member of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers — a group that advocates for land conservation and is a loud voice of opposition against the Bundys and their supporters.
“Personally, I have to say that I’m thrilled that we live in a country that is not like the one espoused by Ryan Bundy,” he says.
Cox reaches to grab the mic away from him.
“I’d like to know why I’m wrong.”
Later, I call Busse to ask about what it felt like to sit in a room filled with people who hang on every word the Bundys say — no matter how untrue they might be.
“It felt to me as if that entire crowd had come to get directions from their messiah as to what their next actions were to be,” he says. “There was no questioning or curiosity or wonderment. It felt like to me they left with very clear marching orders.”
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Leah Sottile is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Oregon. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Playboy, California Sunday Magazine, Outside, The Atlantic and Vice.