Most observers would agree that brothers Ryan and Ammon Bundy, along with five others, got a pretty good deal when they were acquitted of charges stemming from their 41-day armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon last January. Even if the defendants were merely transferred to another jail, where they joined family patriarch Cliven Bundy to await trial on a different set of charges filed after an armed standoff with federal officers from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in Nevada in 2014, the jury letting the Bundy’s off in Oregon this fall caught just about everyone by surprise.
For more than a month last winter, the saga at Malheur played out like some frigid reality television drama, a warped Western “Duck Dynasty” spinoff complete with bitter patriots and militia groups exercising their Second Amendment rights at a remote bird sanctuary while authorities remained at arm’s length. What began as a protest of prison sentences for two local ranchers sprawled into a broader demonstration against federal land management, calling for “local control” and the transfer of federal lands like Malheur to states.
By the time it ended with a 27-year-old man contemplating suicide on livestream Internet before finally surrendering on Feb. 11, 2016, one man had died and 25 others were charged with crimes related to the occupation. Many of them pled guilty to charges of “conspiracy to impede federal officers by force, threat or intimidation” prior to the high-profile trial that concluded with “not-guilty” verdicts for the Bundys and their co-defendants.
The irony of the acquittal occurring on the birthday of Theodore Roosevelt—a champion for public lands who created the Malheur NWR by a presidential order in 1908—was lost on few.
Several members of the loosely organized group are now scheduled to go on trial again in Nevada on February 5, along with Cliven Bundy, who was not present at Malheur. Cliven, Ryan and Ammon Bundy, and 16 others, were charged with an array of federal firearms, conspiracy and assault counts after soliciting hundreds of supporters, many of them armed, to help them face down BLM officers attempting to remove cattle owned by the Bundys from BLM land at Gold Butte, Nevada in 2014. The Bundy family has defied two federal court orders to remove the cattle and refuses to pay more than $1 million in grazing fees and fines.
As with Malheur, the defense has been framing its case as a political protest disputing the federal government’s stewardship of public lands in the West. The looming sequence of trials—authorities have grouped defendants into three tiers—offers defendants another opportunity to spread their anti-government ideology, although the April 2014 “protest” includes charges of obstruction of justice, assault on a federal officer and using and carrying a firearm in relation to a crime of violence. Defendants could face a maximum of 96 years in custody.
Further fanning the flames is the likely creation of a new national monument on the 350,000-acre parcel of desert wilderness at Gold Butte, where several hundred head of Bundy cattle still roam free just south of the Bundy Ranch at Bunkerville, Nevada. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has placed the monument designation as a primary goal before retiring this year and he has called on President Barrack Obama to use his executive power under the 1906 Antiquities Act to preserve the fragile landscape, with its bounty of Native American petroglyphs and endangered desert tortoise habitat, as a monument before leaving office.
Clearly, the situation is volatile. If the men are convicted this time around, it could become dangerous. If they aren’t, it may be worse.
“The government should be scared. They are in the wrong. The land does not belong to the government. The land belongs to the people of Clark County, not to the people of the United States,” Ryan Bundy, 44, told The Washington Post shortly after the Oregon acquittal. “The only peaceful resolution to all this is for them to obey the Constitution. Read it, understand it, abide by it. There doesn’t have to be violence. None of that has to happen if they would just abide by the Constitution.”
Emboldened by the outcome, it’s difficult to ignore the Malheur occupation as a playbook for potential uprisings enabling Bundy supporters to challenge what they consider “government overreach” with regard to federal land management. Beyond the symbolic gesture of overthrowing a government office—without criminal conviction—there’s the reality that the mainstream press typically doesn’t pay much attention to the state land transfer issue until guns are drawn. Like it or not, a precedent has been set.
Ryan Bundy went on to say that a similar protest would be “the best thing in the world for [people] to do” if a monument is designated at Gold Butte. “If the government won’t restrain itself, whatever happens is their own fault,” he told the Post.
The tone is slightly softer on the Bundy Ranch Facebook page, where roughly 200,000 followers are offered the side of the story “the courts would not let you hear.” A series of surprisingly sophisticated videos invokes tales of pioneer heritage and devotion to family and God Almighty in partial narratives absent of any attribution beyond the monotone voice of Ammon Bundy within the jailhouse walls.
There are pictures of children and pleas to (and even praise for) President-elect Donald Trump, whose own anti-establishment rhetoric resonates with this audience. And, despite their unwillingness to recognize the authority of the federal government, the Bundys may well have found a few new friends in the White House. Chief among them, U.S. Attorney General nominee Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who has voted in favor of selling off public lands and gutting the Antiquities Act, and could influence the tenor of courts before the Bundys go to trial.
Enter the Donald
Trump himself has stated a commitment to preserving the federal estate, although it has proven difficult to take him at his word. With regard to conservation issues, the President-elect may cite Teddy Roosevelt one day, and the next day nominate Oklahoma AG Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency—an agency Pruitt has attempted to sue several times.
Trump’s nominee for Secretary of the Interior, U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Mont.), deftly straddles the public lands issue. While Zinke does not support his party’s position on transferring ownership of federal lands to the states, he does support transferring their management. Either way, relaxed regulation within the agency that controls the nation’s largest portfolio of public lands is almost certain.
Trump’s flair for high-profile deal-making could also play into the Bundys’ favor, considering the size of the stage. Whether Trump’s early actions will lead to a plea deal or a second acquittal of the Bundy clan remains to be seen. But even inaction could tilt the balance and open the doors to privatization of public lands by refusing to enforce environmental laws and failing to hold accountable those who threaten them.
Folks in the ranching community who play by the rules and pay grazing fees to run their cattle on public lands remain baffled by the leniency already granted scofflaws like the Bundys, and worry it’s evidence of a larger ploy.
“This whole movement is so beyond what I’m able to comprehend that I just don’t understand it,” said Chuck Ogilby, who grazes cattle along with his son-in-law, Tai Jacober, on public leases near Carbondale, Colorado. “I’m very nervous about seeing more of this, about what’s going to happen to our federal lands and all the hard work we’ve done environmentally in the past.”
Evidence suggests that the pendulum is swinging, but as the Malheur defendants can attest, conspiracy can be difficult to prove—even when it plays out right before our eyes.