On Jan. 2, 2016, a group of armed men took over a wildlife refuge in rural Oregon. They claim that the occupation is about protecting farmers and ranchers from the tyranny of the federal government, but some people accuse them of being radicals or even terrorists.
This series is an attempt to provide a better understanding of the situation by looking at some of the factors that led up to it.
Part 1: THE BUNDY RANCH STANDOFF
You can listen to this story in the media player above, or check out the full-text version below.
To understand what’s going on in Oregon today you have to go back to April of 2014, when rancher Cliven Bundy led hundreds of armed militiamen in a standoff against federal agents in Clark County, Nevada. For those of you who don’t remember the ordeal, here’s a quick rundown.
Bundy’s ranch is located on the Bunkerville Allotment: a federally owned piece of land in southeast Nevada that is managed and protected by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Like any other rancher operating on public lands, Bundy was expected to pay modest grazing fees to the BLM to help offset the cost of things like conservation and habitat restoration. And he did — for decades, in fact. But all that changed in 1993, when the BLM enacted new rules aimed at protecting the endangered Mojave desert tortoise.
One of the new rules required ranchers operating within the tortoise’s habitat to reduce their herd size to just 150 cattle. Bundy, whose herd numbered closer to 1,000, was outraged. Here he is talking about the issue with FoxNews’ Sean Hannity, who interviewed Bundy in the middle of the 2014 standoff: “The desert tortoise is a circuit animal for all the other excuses for the bureaucracies to control,” Bundy said during an interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity during the 2014 standoff.1
The new BLM rules angered many of Bundy’s neighbors as well, but while most of them took up the fight in court, Bundy chose a more extreme response: he stopped paying his grazing fees and declared that he would no longer recognize the federal government’s authority over the land [Relevant stat: When Bundy stopped paying his grazing fees in ‘93, the BLM’s rate of $1.86 per cow per year was more than 80 percent cheaper than the market average ($10.60).2]
Ironically, it wasn’t really the federal government that screwed Bundy over. It was actually local officials in Clark County. Let me explain.
When the desert tortoise was added to the Endangered Species List in 1989, Las Vegas was one of the last strongholds of the tortoise. But it was also one of the fastest growing cities in the United States. Clark County was in a bind: people were moving to Vegas in droves, but property developers risked committing federal offenses if they started new projects in the habitat of the now-protected tortoise.
So local officials came up with a clever, if not somewhat shady, solution. Here’s an excerpt from Newsweek3 describing the scheme:
The county successfully sought a permit that would allow development that inadvertently killed tortoises in some parts of the county if they funded conservation efforts in other parts.
To get the permit, the county made numerous commitments to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to help the desert tortoise thrive. One of those promises was to pay willing ranchers to give up their grazing rights.
“Clark County made a choice: urban development is far more important to us than ranchers on the periphery of the county,” said James Skillen, author of a book about the BLM called “The Nation’s Largest Landlord.”
Nevertheless, Cliven Bundy had picked a fight with the federal government, and he had no plans of backing down anytime soon.
In 1994, Bundy’s grazing license was revoked after he refused to pay the renewal fee. After four more years of non-payment, US District Judge Johnnie B. Rawlinson got involved. In November of 1998, Rawlinson ordered Bundy to remove his cattle from the Bunkerville Allotment by the end of the month or face fines of $200 per day for every cow remaining on the land. In his official decision4,Rawlinson noted that, “The government has shown commendable restraint in allowing this trespass to continue for so long without impounding Bundy’s livestock.”
Bundy ignored the order. Over the next decade, he continued grazing his cattle on the land and even expanded into other protected areas. By 2012, Bundy had racked up nearly $1 million in fines and fees from the BLM; combined, the rest of the ranchers in the United States owed less than $250,000.5
Finally, in April of 2014, the BLM decided enough was enough. With the help of government contractors, the agency led a roundup on the Bunkerville Allotment that impounded some 400 trespassing cows — around 300 of them belonged to Bundy.
But Bundy was more than ready for a showdown with the BLM. About two weeks before the roundup, he had penned a letter to county, state and federal officials threatening to start a “range war” if the BLM tried to take his cattle.6 It was also around this time that Bundy started asking supporters of his cause to come join him in an armed standoff against the BLM. By the time federal agents began the roundup on Apr. 5, dozens of Bundy supporters had already arrived.
Bundy took full advantage of all the media attention he got during the standoff. He laced his interviews with rhetoric designed to attract members of Far Right antigovernment groups, which have enjoyed a major resurgence since the election of Barack Obama in 20087. The tactic was extremely successful. When all was said and done, hundreds of armed men had converged on the Bundy Ranch to stand in opposition to the BLM, including members of the 3%ers, the Oath Keepers and various other antigovernment militia groups.
On April 12, the BLM suspended the roundup in an attempt to defuse some of the rising tensions. But Bundy wasn’t satisfied, and decided to go on the offensive. After the BLM’s announcement, he rallied hundreds of supporters together for a rousing speech in which he said things like, “We definitely don’t recognize [the BLM director’s] jurisdiction or authority, his arresting power or policing power in any way … We’re about ready to take this country over with force.”6
After the speech, Bundy led his supporters to the Interstate 15 bridge, where they blocked traffic in both directions, demanding that the BLM release Bundy’s impounded cattle. For two hours, members of the Bundy militia faced off with federal agents, with both sides pointing rifles at each other.
And it worked. The federal agents eventually backed off and even returned Bundy’s cattle.8 To this day, he has yet to pay any of the $1 million in fines in fees he owes to the BLM.
At the end of the standoff, Bundy’s son Ammon — the leader of the current occupation in Oregon — gave a triumphant interview9 to Michael Flynn of the Southern Utah Independent:
“We’re gonna kick the BLM out of the state, kick all the other federal agencies out of the state that aren’t authorized to be here,” Ammon told Flynn, who then asked him what the BLM had agreed to. “They agreed to get out of here… They’re out of here, 30, 40 minutes, that’s what they agreed… The people said, ‘we don’t want you here, you are not to be here, you’re gone.’ … Those were not negotiating terms. The terms [of our agreement with the BLM] were: you leave. And don’t come back. That’s what it was.”
At the end of the interview, Flynn asked Ammon if he thought the BLM was gone for good. “They better be,” Ammon replied, “or the people will do it again.”
Less than two years later, Ammon would be fulfilling his own prophecy in Oregon.
Make sure to come back tomorrow for Part 2: “Ammon and the Strange Case of the Hammonds”!
6. Federal rangers face off against armed protesters in Nevada ‘range war’ (The Guardian)
8. BLM releases Bundy cattle after protesters block southbound I-15 (Las Vegas Review-Journal)