It had been two years since the area around Cliven Bundy’s Bunkerville, Nev. ranch swarmed with gunmen, many of them clad in tactical gear or cowboy hats — or both — and claiming to protect his constitutional rights against government incursion. Two years since he became a cause celebre for anyone who opposed federal ownership of Western lands, or restrictive environmental regulations, or government overreach, or government, period. Two years since, in the face of that show of armed defiance, federal officials trying to round up Bundy’s cattle for illegal grazing opted to back down.
And still, there had been no move to arrest Bundy, or to collect the $2 million in fines and unpaid grazing fees the government said he owed.
“They’re leaving me alone,” the 74-year-old rancher told The Washington Post on an afternoon late last month, as he took a break from rounding up his livestock. He was still grazing his cattle on the scrubby swath of public land that had been at the center of his dispute with BLM officials. “In this part of Clark County and on Bundy Ranch, we say we’re the freest place on Earth.”
But when Bundy left his ranch this week, that suddenly changed. The controversial Nevada rancher — whose two sons are already imprisoned for their roles in the armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Oregon — was unexpectedly arrested by the FBI after arriving at Portland International Airport Wednesday night, en route to the refuge himself.
Bundy joined his sons Ammon and Ryan at the Multnomah County Jail in Portland.
No charges were listed in Bundy’s jail record, and the FBI in Portland would not confirm the circumstances of his arrest. But the Oregonian reported that Bundy faces the same charge as his sons, conspiracy to impede a federal officer, though his is in relation to his face-off with the BLM two years ago. He is also facing weapons charges.
Bundy’s arrest came just hours after one of the four occupiers still at the refuge had said in a broadcast phone call that they would surrender to law enforcement Thursday morning.
The Bundy Ranch posted this message to its Facebook page just after he was taken into custody.
Bundy, who is something of a patriarch for this most recent armed conflict over land use, has been under federal scrutiny for decades. Since the 1990s, the Nevada rancher had been grazing his cattle on BLM lands without holding a permit or paying grazing fees, in defiance of federal law. The memory of bloody sieges in Waco, Tex. and Ruby Ridge, Idaho still fresh, the federal government was leery of doing anything that might ignite a conflict with Bundy. So, for a while, it did nothing.
But after failing to comply with a 2013 court order to remove his cattle from protected land, Bundy’s long-running dispute with federal officials came to a head. In April 2014, BLM started to enforce the law by closing off the land and seizing Bundy’s cattle.
Bundy and his family hunkered down at their ranch and called for “militiamen” to come to their aid.
“Range War begins at the Bundy ranch at 9:30 a.m,” read a notice to followers, according to the Los Angeles Times. “We’re going to get the job done!”
Within a few days, a ragtag group of ranchers and armed government activists had convened in Bunkerville, setting up camp on or around the Bundy ranch. The standoff never became violent, though it seemed to get close: at one point, Bundy’s supporters took positions on a highway overpass, guns pointed at BLM vehicles just below.
“I’m ready to pull the trigger if fired upon,” one man said, according to Reuters.
Ultimately the BLM backed down, releasing Bundy’s cattle to his supporters. The move angered Bundy’s critics, including then-Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), who had denounced Bundy as a “vigilante” and a domestic terrorist.
Jeff Ruch, executive director of the nonprofit watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, told The Washington Post recently that the way the confrontation ended only served to embolden members of anti-government groups.
“Officials are pointing to the peaceful resolution of the  Bundy case as a success and a model,” he said in January. “The reality is that, by avoiding violence, we may have created a recipe for bringing on even more of it.”
But Bundy’s successful standoff made him something of a folk hero on the right. Many Republican officials, including Sens. Dean Heller (Nev.) and Rand Paul (Ky.), applauded Bundy and his makeshift militia — Heller called them “patriots.” The group also won praise from the conservative media.
Most of that support evaporated after news outlets, including The Washington Post, obtained video of Bundy wondering aloud whether black Americans were better off as slaves, and claiming that people of color were “against us.”
“I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro,” Bundy said, according to the video. “I’ve often wondered: Are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.”
A spokesman for Heller declared the remarks “appalling and racist” while Paul said they were “offensive.”
Eventually, Bundy faded from the headlines, though he still owes the federal government some $2 million.
But Bundy surged back into public view when his son Ammon led the armed takeover of the Malheur Refuge in Burns on Jan. 2. The younger Bundy was arrested in late January after a traffic stop that turned violent. Though Ammon Bundy and others surrendered to officials, the group’s spokesman LaVoy Finicum was fatally shot by Oregon state troopers after authorities say he reached toward a loaded 9mm semiautomatic handgun inside his jacket.
In the wake of Finicum’s death and his own arrest, Ammon Bundy repeatedly called on his followers to “stand down” and said that they would now take their fight to the courts. But Cliven Bundy has been more defiant. In a post to Facebook a few hours before his arrest, the Bundy Ranch page wrote “HEAD TO BURNS NOW!!! GATHER AS MANY PEOPLE AS POSSIBLE AND GO NOW!!! WE WILL KEEP YOU UPDATED!”
Mike Arnold, an attorney for Ammon Bundy who was helping to negotiate the last four occupiers’ surrender, was on his way to the Malheur Refuge when he received word that Cliven Bundy had been arrested.
“I’m extremely disappointed and quite frankly speechless,” he told The Washington Post. “It was a horrible strategic move to arrest Cliven while negotiations were literally happening on the phone. That is not a symbol of good faith.”
A few hours earlier, the remaining occupiers had said that they would leave the refuge at 8 a.m. Thursday if Nevada assemblywoman Michele Fiore, who is with Arnold, was there as a witness. Despite the news of Bundy’s arrest, Arnold said he is optimistic that agreement will hold.
“The one silver lining,” he said “Is that if Cliven Bundy can be arrested peacefully — the lightning rod of much of the discourse on these issues — then the folks at the refuge should rest assured that the FBI will honor their promise to peacefully end this.”