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A decade after armed standoff, the Bundys appear to be above the law

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

It has been 10 years since Cliven Bundy summoned a mob to his Nevada ranch and staged an armed standoff over control of federal public land. He was never convicted, and his cows continue to graze illegally today. His son Ammon also remains free despite a months-old arrest warrant. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports on why the Bundys appear to be above the law.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: You could call Patrick Donnelly a citizen environmental cop, at least in the southwest desert lands that are so remote they can feel a little lawless.

PATRICK DONNELLY: Do you care if I whip out my drone and take some photos of some cows trespassing on public land?

SIEGLER: On a scorching blacktop road near Bunkerville, Nev., about 80 miles east of Las Vegas, Donnelly eagerly hops out of his pickup and unpacks his drone.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRONE BUZZING)

SIEGLER: He flies it over some cows mingling down by the Virgin River. It's a tributary of the Colorado that once fed many farms and ranches in southern Nevada.

DONNELLY: Never used it in 100-degree temperatures before, but it seems to be doing OK.

SIEGLER: There is no doubt whose cows these are, though. The only rancher still left out here is Cliven Bundy. For years, he's illegally grazed cattle on these federally owned public lands, racking up a million dollars in unpaid fees. The government eventually revoked his grazing permits.

DONNELLY: I do not feel comfortable out here. You know, I am constantly watching my back out here. This is certainly not a place I would come recreate with my family.

SIEGLER: Donnelly of the Center for Biological Diversity is keeping an even lower profile lately. In March, his group sued to force the Biden administration to remove hundreds of Bundy cows grazing in what's now known as the Gold Butte National Monument. It's also a culturally sensitive area for Native Americans that begins just past the family's longtime ranch house and corrals.

DONNELLY: Here's Bundy Ranch.

SIEGLER: But Donnelly says this is also a place where federal law doesn't really seem to apply.

DONNELLY: The fact that people can break the law with impunity and then, when they're held to account, they can just all up a small army and point automatic weapons at police officers and get away with it - that is a serious problem for the very fabric of our society.

SIEGLER: Cliven Bundy was forced off this land in the 1990s, when much of it was designated as critical habitat for the endangered desert tortoise, after a controversial land swap that also allowed Las Vegas to continue growing. And even though the feds had revoked his permits, they didn't come for his cows until 2014, and it didn't go well.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FRONTLINE")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: The Bunkerville protest was becoming an uprising.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: We're taking back our county. That's basically what's going to happen. Then we're going to take back...

SIEGLER: As self-described patriot groups mobilized Bunkerville, federal agents stood down. Three years later, the government's case collapsed in a mistrial. And after more than a year in jail, Cliven was a free man.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CLIVEN BUNDY: We're not done with this. If the federal government comes out after us again, we will definitely tell them the truth.

ROBERT FUTRELL: That was a huge moment in the patriot movement and the antigovernment movement.

SIEGLER: Robert Futrell is a domestic extremism expert at UNLV.

FUTRELL: In their fantastical visions of who they imagine that they are, they face down the bad, the wicked, the federal government, and they won.

SIEGLER: Futrell says the Bundys' views on land are rooted in an obscure and extremist Latter-Day Saints ideology, that they have a divine right to resist federal intrusion into their lives.

FUTRELL: And if you're using the land and you're using it in God's good graces, then you are justified in just about everything you do to defend it.

SIEGLER: Experts say the Bundys also know that the threat of summoning armed protesters is an effective tactic. Cliven's son, Ammon, staged another armed standoff in Oregon two years later. A jury there acquitted him. And now in Idaho, there's an arrest warrant out for Ammon for contempt of court following armed protests against that state's largest hospital. But on their YouTube channel, the Bundys portray themselves as folk heroes, a rural struggle to save ranching as the West becomes urbanized.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Morning, y'all. So today we are going cowboying. And right now I'm actually catching my horse.

SIEGLER: On social media, the family has warned that if federal agents ever return to Nevada, they'll face thousands of protesters, not hundreds like 10 years ago. So they're not exactly hiding, and they're making money off their brand. In nearby St. George, Utah, one of Cliven's sons opened up the Bundy Brazilian Steakhouse here on a busy thoroughfare.

It looks like it's attached to the Red Lion Hotel, a big chain hotel here. The menu - they've got Brazilian sausage, tri-tip. I actually smell the smoker right here.

Ammon Bundy is thought to be living somewhere near here after fleeing Idaho, where a jury ordered his People's Rights network to pay $52 million in a civil defamation suit.

GARY RANEY: If he's just going to be down there and he's going to be an angry little man in southern Utah, so what?

SIEGLER: Gary Raney is the former sheriff of Ada County, Idaho's most populous. He says there's a hangover from the standoffs - and even Ruby Ridge and Waco - when it comes to dealing with the Bundys.

RANEY: What is government supposed to do? What is law enforcement supposed to do? Are they going to go in and start a firefight there? Are we going to come back and create another situation to give them more glory in their band of supporters?

SIEGLER: Raney says people are afraid to speak out against the Bundys because if they do, it just plays into their narrative that they're under attack. That's how the family's supporters portrayed it when I tried to interview Cliven Bundy in Nevada. One hot afternoon near the ranch, I flagged down Carol, Cliven's wife. She tells me NPR has not been fair to the family. We're not antigovernment, she says. We love our country. She reluctantly says I can go in and ask Cliven for an interview.

(SOUNDBITE OF BANG)

SIEGLER: But at the gate to their farmhouse, there's a boisterous man who identifies himself only as Mike. He's with another man who's filming us.

MIKE: Hey. You from NPR?

SIEGLER: Yeah.

MIKE: Oh, man. Great.

SIEGLER: He says they'll film the interview because the news media twists things out of context.

MIKE: You don't mind if we're all in here, right?

SIEGLER: Probably do, actually. So...

MIKE: Oh, no - too many people?

SIEGLER: Yes.

MIKE: We can't stay, you can't stay.

SIEGLER: I don't - yeah, I don't know what to tell you.

Well, the front door is closed, so it's not even clear if Cliven is in the house.

MIKE: Cliven wants to see you.

SIEGLER: Yeah.

MIKE: The least you could do is come in and say hi to Cliven...

SIEGLER: Yeah.

MIKE: ...Before you leave. You can be that respectful. Come on. Just come in and shake his hand.

SIEGLER: I decline the invite...

MIKE: Don't be afraid.

SIEGLER: ...Give Carol Bundy my card and leave. A week later, they turned NPR's interview request into their own video for social media.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CLIVEN BUNDY: Oh, those lying, no-good dogs.

SIEGLER: The headline says NPR tries to ambush the Bundy family.

CLIVEN BUNDY: Bring them in. We're going to bush - let's bushwhack him. We're going to get him on tape. We're going to bushwhack him.

CAROL BUNDY: I said we have to ask.

CLIVEN BUNDY: I mean, do you want me to go get him?

SIEGLER: So the Bundys still seem to rule this corner of Nevada. The federal agencies whose land their cows are trespassing on declined interview requests. And there's little chance the Biden administration would act in a swing state in an election year. Darren Daboda finds all of this sad and ironic. He's the historic preservation officer for the Moapa Band of Paiutes. Their small reservation lies just west of the Bundy ranch.

DARREN DABODA: You know, how can they get away with this?

SIEGLER: Daboda says the Bundy cows are desecrating his tribe's ancestral lands.

DABODA: It's sort of ironic when they talk to us. We've been here a long time. I was like, their ancestors came, you know, from Europe. We've been here since time immemorial as Paiutes.

SIEGLER: And he's pleading for the rest of the country to not forget what's happening out on this protected public land where some are acting above the law.

Kirk Siegler NPR News, Bunkerville, Nev.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALEX VAUGHN SONG, "SO BE IT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.