This most-recent skirmish is only the latest in a decades-long fight between the federal government and Cliven Bundy, however. Here's a timeline that proves just how complicated this case is — as well as the power that the media still retains to elevate a local political issue into a national one.
1989: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lists the desert tortoise as an endangered species. A year later, its designation was changed to "threatened."
March 1993: The Washington Post publishes a story about the federal government's efforts to protect the desert tortoise in Nevada. Near Las Vegas, the Bureau of Land Management designated hundreds of thousands of acres of federal land for strict conservation efforts. "Among the conservation measures required," according to the Post's coverage, "are the elimination of livestock grazing and strict limits on off-road vehicle use in the protected tortoise habitat. Two weeks ago, the managers of the plan completed the task of purchasing grazing privileges from cattle ranchers who formerly used BLM land."
Many people were not impressed by the new conservation plan. "Cliven Bundy, whose family homesteaded his ranch in 1877 and who accuses the government of a 'land grab,' are digging in for a fight and say they will not willingly sell their grazing privileges to create another preserve." People who use the desert to prospect for minerals and to race motorcycles and jeeps also feel shortchanged. "'It was shoved down our throat,' said Mark Trinko, who represents off-road vehicle users on the committee that oversees the plan."
Bundy has repeatedly been fined for grazing his cattle on the protected land, fines he has not paid since 1993. The Bureau of Land Management, which oversees about 800 grazing areas in Nevada, responded by revoking his permit. Bundy has not applied for a new one.
April 1995: The fight between the Bureau of Land Management and the ranchers who want to use the federal land without fees or oversight is growing more tense, according to a story published in USA Today.
Thursday evening, a small bomb went off in the U.S. Forest Service office in Carson City, Nev.
Though no one has taken responsibility -- and no one was injured -- it has sent chills through government agencies involved in Western land management.
"If it was sent as a message," says Forest Service spokeswoman Erin O'Connor, "we got it."
Ultimately the issue will be settled by the courts, but ranchers who say they can't afford to raise livestock without greater access to public land are taking matters into their own hands -- setting up what some officials fear is an inevitable and dangerous confrontation.
The situation is becoming so tense that federal workers now travel mostly in pairs and are in constant radio contact with district offices.
"I'm concerned about the safety of my employees," says Jim Nelson, Forest Service district manager for Nevada. "They can't go to church in these communities without having someone say something. Their kids are harassed in school. Stores and restaurants are not serving them."
Nelson, who oversees 7 million acres in Nevada, says his agency is just doing its job, which is to ensure that land remains healthy and viable for ranchers and any others who wish to use it.
That goal, he says, is hindered by unattended, free-ranging cows that degrade the state's precious springs and stream banks.
The battle is being called Sagebrush II, a sequel to a 1970s movement that sought a state takeover of federal public lands. Today, many ranchers, miners and loggers argue the federal government never had a legitimate claim to the land.
The reason that things were ramping up? Counties were starting to challenge federal ownership of land. In 1991, Catron County in New Mexico passed an ordinance that claimed state ownership and local management of public land in the state. Thirty five counties followed suit. Nye County, Nevada, became the first to act on its legislated threat. The county commissioner bulldozed his way down a closed national forest road. Forest rangers soon followed, who the county commissioner threatened to arrest if they interfered.
At this point, Cliven Bundy had racked up $31,000 in fees for grazing on federal land without a permit. Helicopters often hover over his herd, counting up the cows so he can be fined appropriately. "They've taken their authority and abused it," Bundy said. "I'm not being regulated to death anymore."
Bundy's neighbors were also angry.
"The federal government just wants control of us. But I'm not going to be controlled," Keith Nay says.
But those seeking greater access to federal land deny they are looking for an old-West shoot-out.
"Do you want to see my weapons?" asks Norm Tom, a Paiute Indian and Nay's son-in-law, who runs about 100 cows on range adjoining Bundy's. He pulls out two copies of the Constitution, one pocket-sized, one full sized.
March 18, 1996: The federal government, which owns 87 percent of the land in Nevada, is still worried about potential violence if they try to remove illegally grazing cattle from protected land. Two more pipebombs had exploded in Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management offices in the past two years. The Justice Department has 12 lawsuits pending against Nevada cattle ranchers. A federal court in the state struck down the Nye County ordinance that caused trouble the year before. Not that ranchers took that as reason to stand down, however. One local resident told USA Today,"A single district court decision in one district doesn't settle it. It's just a single day in the year of a revolutionary war. We're going to continue on with the fight." Bundy is also continuing to graze on federal lands. "I'm still saying the state of Nevada owns that land, and the federal government has been an encroacher. I'm not moving my cattle. We have ... rights."
Bundy states that his rights derive from the fact his Mormon ancestors were using the land far before the federal government claimed authority over it. One Elko County rancher, Cliff Gardner, has decided to take his case to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing that states' rights mean the federal government has no authority over the land where his cattle graze.
1998: A federal judge issues a permanent injunction against Bundy, ordering him to remove his cattle from the federal lands. He lost an appeal to the San Francisco 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. He represented himself.
March 2002: Cliff Gardner is sentenced to a month in a Reno halfway house, along with a $5,000 fine and a year of probation. He has been under house arrest for the three previous months for not taking his cattle off of federal land. When his sentence — which affirmed the U.S. Forest Service's authority over the disputed land — was announced, more than 50 states' rights protesters were in the courtroom with him.
Three were dressed in white wigs as American Revolutionary War patriots and another wearing a wig and red coat said he was England's King George. "Has the West been won, or has the fight just begun?" read a banner at a rally outside the courthouse where 15 protesters on horseback carried signs while children waved the Nevada state flag. "This court has tried to intimidate the citizens of Nevada by attempting to make an example of Cliff Gardner," said Cliven Bundy, a Clark County rancher.
July 2009: The federal government is still fighting with local ranchers. They have signs posted all over the public land, stating that it is off-limits for grazing.
Some signs have been chain-sawed down; others have been filled with bullet holes. “There haven't been any confrontations out there, but we have to be careful,” says Gail Marrs-Smith, who manages the area for the BLM. “We travel in pairs.” Cliven Bundy, a local organic melon farmer, is one of those who resent the changes. To protect an endangered tortoise, Clark County has set aside habitat by buying and retiring all of the government grazing leases in Gold Butte. But Bundy still runs his cows through here, even though since 1993 he has been ordered to desist because he has no permit. Bundy says that his family has grazed here since the nineteenth century and that he doesn't recognize the authority of the federal government. He has threatened resistance if anyone enforces the court order to remove his cattle from the wilderness. “It's so blatant,” says Rob Mrowka, a conservationist who works for the Center for Biological Diversity, in Las Vegas. “Anyone can go out there anytime of the year and see cattle. BLM employees trying to protect sensitive plants and animals are very frustrated. It's a problem that's been going on and on.”
April 2012: The BLM plans to round up Bundy's cattle. After several threats, these plans are abandoned. The Center for Biological Diversity files an intent to sue against the BLM for canceling their plans.
May 2012: BLM files a complaint in a federal Las Vegas court seeking an injunction against Bundy.
February 2013: After endless complaints from ranchers and hunters, Nevada Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval demands the resignation of Kenneth Mayer, director of the Nevada Department of Wildlife. One of Mayer's biggest projects was deciding whether to add another Nevada animal to the endangered species list, the sage grouse. He had mapped the best places to mark as protected sage grouse habitats in the state, and the best places to encourage environmentally safe economic development.
Ranchers thought his conservation efforts were misplaced. The president of Hunters Alert told the New York Times, “What did Ken Mayer do? Nothing. Just habitat, habitat, habitat, which is a terrible thing for a person in his position to do. You get instant results when you poison a raven or shoot a coyote.” Hunters also prefer predator killing because of its effects on the deer population. Scientists counter that ecosystem preservation is a far better way to stop extinction than predator management. Gerald Lent, a former chairman of the Nevada Board of Wildlife Commissioners called these findings, backed up by extensive research, “voodoo science.”
Cliff Gardner reappeared during this fight, writing frequent letters to the editor to the Elko Daily Free Press about Mayer's eventual replacement. “I’m sure most of the people being considered for his job graduated from a college. These people are the cause of the destruction of wildlife.”
August 2013: A court order says Bundy has 45 days to remove his cattle from federal land.
October 2013: A federal district judge court tells Bundy not to “physically interfere with any seizure or impoundment operation.”
March 15, 2014: After nearly 20 years, the Bureau of Land Management sends Bundy a letter informing him that they plan to impound his "trespass cattle," which have been roaming on 90 miles of federal land. BLM averages four livestock impoundments a year, usually involving a few dozen animals.
March 27, 2014: The BLM has closed off 322,000 acres of public land, and is preparing to collect Bundy's cattle. Bundy files a notice with the county sheriff department, titled “Range War Emergency Notice and Demand for Protection." Bundy also says he has a virtual army of supporters from all over the country ready to protect him. He also has Gardner. “I think Cliven is taking a stand not only for family ranchers, but also for every freedom-loving American, for everyone," Gardner said. "I’ve been trying to resolve these same types of issues since 1984. Perhaps it’s difficult for the average American to understand, but protecting the individual was a underlying factor of our government. ... My support is that I am determined to stand by the Bundy family in any fashion it takes regardless of the threat of life or limb."
Clark County Commissioner Tom Collins also supports Bundy. “The U.S. government has perpetrated a bigger fraud on people over those tortoises than Al Capone did selling swampland in Miami."
April 1, 2014: Bundy's 14 children and 52 grandchildren are all bunkered down at his house waiting for the BLM to arrive. Bundy is giving constant interviews and making constant calls to local and state officials. BLM has set up two "First Amendment areas" in nearby Bunkerville.
April 2, 2014: Around 30 protesters line up outside the Livestock auction house to protest the sale of Bundy's cattle. If Bundy doesn't pay the fees he's accumulated, his cows could be sold to another buyer.
A group of local conservationists sent a letter to local officials demanding that they support BLM's actions. One of those people was Bundy's cousin, Terri Robertson. They've only met a few times, and only at meetings about the federal lands. “He’s just in a world of his own. I don’t think he’s working on all four cylinders,” Robertson said. Bundy retorts that his city slicker cousin doesn't know what she is talking about. “My cattle are the kind of cattle people look for at Whole Foods.”
April 5, 2014: After decades of trepidation, federal officials and cowboys start rounding up what they think are Cliven Bundy's hundreds of cows. The operation was going to cost $1 million, and reportedly last until May. BLM contends that Bundy owes $1 million in fees, and will also have to pay the round-up expenses. Bundy — who retorts that he only owes $300,000 in fees — says the city folk are only hurting themselves by taking his cows. He told a reporter from the Las Vegas Review Journal that there would be 500,000 fewer hamburgers per year after his cows were towed away; “But nobody is thinking about that. Why would they? They’re all thinking about the desert tortoise. Hey, the tortoise is a fine creature. I like him. I have no problem with him. But taking another man’s cattle? It just doesn’t seem right.”
He also thinks the co-habitating cows and tortoises could have a beautiful, symbiotic relationship if the government would let them. “The tortoises eat the cow manure, too. It’s filled with protein.”
April 6, 2014: Cliven Bundy's 37-year-old son is arrested for "refusing to disperse" and resisting arrest. He was released the following day. His face is covered with scratches from fighting the feds. Before he left the detention center, authorities gave him a tuna fish sandwich. "It wasn’t poison," he said. "I just ate it.”
The Nevada Cattlemen’s Association distances itself from protests over Bundy's cattle. “Nevada Cattlemen’s Association does not feel it is in our best interest to interfere in the process of adjudication in this matter."
April 9, 2014: Two of Bundy's family members are injured in a confrontation with federal officials. One of them was Bundy's son, tasered after he kicked a police dog. "I'm almost getting mad enough to swear," Bundy says. "The one thing we're going to do is stay cool and we're gonna fight."
Traveling from as close as St. George — and as far as Montana — a mix of characters waved picket signs at an encampment just before a bridge over the Virgin River, protesting the BLM’s campaign.
“This is a better education than being in school! I’m glad I brought you. I’m a good mom,” said Ilona Ence, a 49-year-old mother from St. George and Bundy relative who brought her four teenage kids to the ranch. “They’re learning about the Constitution.”
... Jack Faught, Bundy’s first cousin, drove his forest green 1929 Chevy truck from Mesquite loaded with water and Gatorade.
“It’s not about the cows,” he said. “It’s about the freedom to make our own choices close to home.”
Polo Parra, a 27-year-old tattoo artist from Las Vegas, even showed up with two of his friends to support the rancher. Dressed in baggy clothes and covered in tattoos, the group carried signs that read “TYRANNY IS ALIVE” and “WHERE’S THE JUSTICE?” in red spray-painted letters.
One of Parra’s friends, who would not share his name, had a pistol tucked in his waistband.
“I think it’s bull, and it really made me mad,” said Parra, who decided to make the trip when he heard about the violence that broke out on the ranch. “This isn’t about no turtles or cows.”
April 12, 2014: BLM decides not to enforce their court order: "Based on information about conditions on the ground, and in consultation with law enforcement, we have made a decision to conclude the cattle gather because of our serious concern about the safety of employees and members of the public."
April 14, 2014: BLM also pledges that this isn't done. A spokesperson for the bureau said this Sunday, "The door isn't closed. We'll figure out how to move forward with this."
Some of Bundy's neighbors aren't impressed by his actions. "I feel that the rule of law supersedes armed militias coming in from all over the country to stand with a law-breaking rancher, which is what he is," one person told a local TV station.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid tells a local news outlet, "It's not over. We can't have an American people that violate the law and then just walk away from it. So it's not over."
April 24, 2014: Bundy asks whether African Americans might be better off as slaves. Bundy also uses the word "negro."
“I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro,” he said. Mr. Bundy recalled driving past a public-housing project in North Las Vegas, “and in front of that government house the door was usually open and the older people and the kids — and there is always at least a half a dozen people sitting on the porch — they didn’t have nothing to do. They didn’t have nothing for their kids to do. They didn’t have nothing for their young girls to do.
“And because they were basically on government subsidy, so now what do they do?” he asked. “They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And 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.”
May 27, 2014: Bundy makes some more news by officially leaving the Republican Party, joining the Independent American Party.
Jan. 2, 2016: After a rally protesting the five-year prison sentences of two men convicted of arson, Cliven Bundy's son, Ammon Bundy, and supporters begin an armed occupation of a federal wildlife refuge building.
They pledge to stay there indefinitely.
An unpredictable new chapter in the wars over federal land use in the West unfolded Sunday after a group of armed activists split off from an earlier protest march and occupied part of a national wildlife refuge in remote southeastern Oregon.
The activists, led by rancher Ammon Bundy, set themselves up in the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge 30 miles southeast of here, defying the organizers of a rally and march held Saturday in support of two local ranchers who are scheduled to report to federal prison Monday to serve a sentence for arson.
Some of the occupiers said they planned to stay indefinitely. Harney County Sheriff David M. Ward said authorities from several law enforcement organizations were monitoring the situation.
“These men came to Harney County claiming to be part of militia groups supporting local ranchers,” Ward said in a statement Sunday. “When in reality these men had alternative motives, to attempt to overthrow the county and federal government in hopes to spark a movement across the United States.”
The occupation revealed deep divides among some Western ranchers who want freer rein over federal lands but are split on whether to achieve those goals peacefully or more confrontationally.
Organizers of Saturday’s rally said several hundred protesters marched through Burns, a ranching town of fewer than 3,000 residents, in a show of support for Dwight Hammond, 73, and his son Steven Hammond, 46, who after decades of clashes with the federal government were sentenced in October
to five years in prison.
But, at the rally’s end, Ammon Bundy and an estimated dozen supporters declared they would take up arms and occupy a federal refuge building in protest. Amanda Peacher, a reporter for Oregon Public Broadcasting, reported that the men had entered a building at the refuge that was unstaffed over the weekend.
Aaron Blake contributed to this post.