The armed occupation of a wildlife reserve in rural Oregon over the weekend marked the national re-emergence of the Bundy family — a clan of ranchers who have amassed vocal supporters during their decades-long clash with the federal government over land rights.
The Bundy family makes up perhaps the best known of the current crop of activists who think that the federal government — through expanding environmental and land regulation — has unconstitutionally infringed on the rights of citizens and that armed confrontation is necessary to curb that perceived overreach.
Best known among the Bundys is Cliven, the family patriarch, a Nevada rancher who federal officials say has been illegally grazing his cattle on federal land for decades.
That dispute came to a head in April 2014, when the U.S. Bureau of Land Management tried to move Bundy’s cattle, and he in turn vowed to shoot any federal agent who entered the land.
His supporters took up arms, and, eventually, the federal agents ceded to Bundy’s demands that they leave.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks extremist groups, says that victory strengthened Bundy, his sons and their supporters, who have armed themselves against federal agents in several other land disputes, including over the weekend in eastern Oregon.
“When the federal government was stopped from enforcing the law at gunpoint, that energized this entire movement,” said Heidi Beirich of the law center. “When you have a big win like they did at the Bundy ranch, it emboldens people. . . . It is definitely a recipe for disaster.”
The law center said that in 2014, it identified 202 anti-government militia and “patriot” groups, including the Bundy family and their supporters. And, Beirich said, after the Bundys’ victory in Nevada, the center thinks that number grew by one-third in 2015.
Since running federal officers off his ranch, Bundy and his supporters have become a traveling troop — co-opting various incidents in which they think the federal government is over-regulating people. In April, the Bundy family involved itself in a dispute at the Sugar Pine Mine, during which a local miner took up arms against federal agents who said he did not own the surface rights to the land he was mining. Other members of the Bundy operation went to the border, arguing that if the federal government would not prevent illegal immigration, they would do it themselves.
And the plight of the Hammond family — Oregon ranchers sentenced to prison for arson who were being rallied-around on Saturday — caught the attention of Ammon Bundy, an Idaho rancher who is one of Cliven’s sons.
Ammon and one of his brothers, Ryan Bundy, are believed to be leading the occupation in Oregon, and have vowed to remain in the federal wildlife refuge until the Hammonds are released from prison.