BUNKERVILLE, Nev. — Two of Cliven Bundy’s sons sit in an Oregon jail, their protest over government land policies crushed by federal lawmen. Yet, when the rebellion’s patriarch surveys the land around his Nevada ranch, he sees only signs of victory.
Gone now are the federal officers who used to show up at his door asking about the $2 million he owes for grazing his cattle on U.S. property. The rangers in their white pickup trucks are rarely seen since the night last summer when two government workers were chased from the area by gunfire.
“They’re leaving me alone,” the 69-year-old Bundy said on a late-January afternoon as he took a break from rounding up stray livestock on a parcel of desert scrub an hour’s drive northeast of Las Vegas. “In this part of Clark County and on Bundy Ranch, we say we’re the freest place on Earth.”
By outward appearances, Washington appears to have indeed given up on the fight with the man who started the protest movement that erupted in violence last week near Burns, Ore. Some locals have taken to calling the area “Bundystan,” a kind of rebel enclave on taxpayer-owned land. Makeshift signs erected by Bundy’s supporters welcome visitors to enjoy “A free land, by the people.”
Whether Bundy and his ranch will remain free is unclear. Obama administration officials say they are moving forward with the case against the cattleman, whose sagebrush revolt became a cause celebre for groups opposed to federal ownership of Western lands. But U.S. officials also are anxious to avoid violence, particularly in the wake of the arrests last week outside a wildlife refuge in eastern Oregon that left one protester dead.
In April 2014, government officials backed away from a confrontation with Bundy after his armed supporters threatened to go to war over an attempt to round up livestock that had been grazing on federally owned land for years without a permit. Nearly two years later, there has been no attempt to arrest him or collect the fees he is reckoned to owe.
“They have no jurisdiction or authority, and they have no policing power,” Bundy, ever defiant, said in an interview. “They have no business here.”
Officials for the Interior Department, the federal agency that manages most of Nevada’s public lands, declined to discuss plans for resolving the case or to comment on ongoing investigations stemming from the 2014 standoff. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell has repeatedly said that Bundy broke the law and will eventually be held to account.
“The wheels of justice move at their own pace,” Jewell said during a visit to Nevada last summer.
But others, including some former Interior employees, say the reluctance to confront Bundy has only emboldened the rancher’s followers. Over the past 21 months, government employees have faced a barrage of threats and occasional harassment from those opposed to federal ownership of any Western lands, said Edward Patrovsky, who worked 28 years as a law enforcement officer for the Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service.
“The atmosphere seems a lot more toxic than it was before, and some of it comes from the Bundy confrontation,” Patrovsky said last week. “The government backed down. And when they did, the militia groups sensed a victory.”
Bundy, who had predicted no government interference in the standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, appeared agitated when asked about the FBI operation that led to the arrests of two of his sons and six others, plus the fatal shooting of activist LaVoy Finicum. But he showed no signs of wavering.
“My sons and those who were there were there to do good. No harm was intended,” he said in a video posted Thursday by the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “This will be a wake-up call to America.”
The standoff that thrust Bundy and his family in the media spotlight was over livestock — specifically, where and how a few hundred Bundy cows would be allowed to graze. Western ranchers have long paid fees to the U.S. government for permission to fatten their cattle on taxpayer-owned territory.
But two decades ago, Bundy abruptly stopped paying. His explanations have differed over time, but the one today is philosophical: He believes the government illegitimately holds property that rightfully belongs to states and private citizens. His bill now exceeds $2 million, and he still won’t obey orders to stop his cows from roaming on federal land.
A solidly built son of Mormon cattlemen, Bundy speaks with the conviction of someone who believes the Constitution is on his side. Standing by a wind-swept desert highway in late afternoon, he patiently walked a visitor through his interpretation of Article 4, which delineates responsibilities for federal and state governments. He spoke in a soft drawl, wearing boots soiled with mud and manure.
“The land belongs to ‘We the People,’ ” Bundy said. “We own the rights, like the rest of the public, to go out there and fish and camp and hunt. The federal government does not have that right. They’re not citizens of Clark County.”
Courts and legal scholars have repeatedly rejected such views. The land where Bundy’s cows graze has been owned by Washington since 1848, when the territory that is now Nevada was annexed following the U.S. war with Mexico. Federal agencies own and manage more than 80 percent of Nevada’s land, the most of any state.
Bundy thinks the federal government should turn over all of it, with a small exception granted for Nevada’s military installations. He also argues that the BLM and other federal agencies have systematically mistreated landowners, such as Dwight and Steven Hammond, the ranchers whose legal issues helped to trigger activists’ Jan. 2 takeover of the Malheur refuge building. The Hammonds were convicted of arson charges after setting a fire that spread to nearby federally owned land.
“The federal government has been overreaching and abusing the citizens of the West — mainly the ranchers but also miners and loggers,” Bundy said as two grandchildren played in the back of his SUV. “They’ve been abusing us for such a long time that we’re tired of it, and we’re not going to put up with it anymore.”
While some dismiss such talk as harmless venting, others say Bundy’s confrontational rhetoric has consequences, not just in Nevada. The longer the federal government delays a reckoning, current and former employees say, the worse things are becoming for the thousands of park rangers, BLM lawmen and others charged with policing the land.
Some face constant harassment, according to Jeff Ruch, executive director of the nonprofit watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. “A third of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s employees said in a survey that they had been threatened,” he said.
The irony, Ruch continued, is that the anti-government rhetoric paints government employees as armed oppressors when it’s now the government workers who are intimidated and often outgunned.
“Officials are pointing to the peaceful resolution of the  Bundy case as a success and a model,” he said. “The reality is that, by avoiding violence, we may have created a recipe for bringing on even more of it.”