BUNKERVILLE — From near and wide, armed men are trickling toward Cliven Bundy’s ranch, where the embattled rancher’s fight with the federal government has become a rallying cry for militia groups across the United States.
On Wednesday, that dispute teetered at the edge of deadly conflict, when Cliven Bundy’s family members and supporters scuffled with rangers from the Bureau of Land Management sent to protect the ongoing federal roundup of Bundy’s cattle on public land. One of Bundy’s seven sons was shot with a stun gun, and Bundy’s sister was knocked to the ground, but no one was seriously hurt and no arrests were made.
By late Wednesday, three militia members — two from Montana and one from Utah — had arrived at the ranch 80 miles northeast of Las Vegas. Other militia groups have inundated the Bundy household with calls and pledges to muster at the site. Their stated goal: to protect the Bundys from tyranny.
They say they are prepared for armed confrontation, but they insist if bloodshed happens, they will not be the instigators.
Ryan Payne and Jim Lardy, members of the West Mountain Rangers, made the 12-hour drive from western Montana on Tuesday night. Payne is also a coordinator with Operation Mutual Aid, a national association that describes itself as a coalition of state militias.
“They all tell me they are in the process of mobilizing as we speak,” Payne said in an interview at the ranch.
Payne didn’t put a specific estimate on how many militia members may come, but he said the groups expected are from places like New Hampshire, Texas,and Florida and could number in the hundreds.
“We need to be the barrier between the oppressed and the tyrants,” he said. “Expect to see a band of soldiers.”
Payne, 30, and Lardy, 49, both wore holstered handguns as they spoke, but they downplayed the display of firepower. They wear their weapons daily.
The goals, they say, are for no one to be harmed, the Bundy family to be protected, and the Bundy property restored.
For now, they will camp on the Bundy ranch. The issue, they say, isn’t about cattle or grazing rights. It’s about constitutional rights, they said.
“We’re not anti-government,” said Lardy, who cuts firewood for a living. “We’re anti-corrupt government.”
Stephen Dean, 45, an artist from Utah, said he made the trip in hopes of heading off another Ruby Ridge or Waco. A member of the People’s United Mobile Armed Services, he said he also carries weapons more powerful than his firearms: a camera and the Internet. Those tools will document the plight of the Bundy ranch and bring the issue to light, he said. “I’m here to see it does happen differently.”
Serious bloodshed was narrowly avoided earlier in the day, when a BLM ranger shot Ammon Bundy with a stun gun during a heated confrontation a few miles from the ranch house.
A video posted to YouTube shows a group of angry protesters and law enforcement officers yelling and threatening each other as trucks involved in the roundup attempt to drive through. The officers have their stun guns drawn and one is trying to push the crowd back with a barking dog on a leash.
Cheryl Teerlink, who witnessed the altercation, said Ammon Bundy was hit by a stun gun in the arm, chest and neck, but he shook off the first attempt to incapacitate him. “I pulled the tasers out of him,” she said.
Shortly before that, Cliven Bundy’s sister, Margaret Houston, was thrown to the ground by a BLM officer, Teerlink said.
The incident unfolded near the intersection of Gold Butte Road and state Route 170, where protesters gathered after they saw BLM vehicles, including construction equipment, coming down from the range.
The Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service released a statement late Wednesday confirming that one protester had been stunned. The agencies said the incident started when “a BLM truck driven by a non-law enforcement civilian employee assisting with gather operations was struck by a protester on an ATV, and the truck’s exit from the area was blocked by a group of individuals who gathered around the vehicle.”
According to the statement, peaceful protests have “crossed into illegal activity” in recent days, with people “blocking vehicles associated with the gather, impeding cattle movement, and making direct and overt threats to government employees.”
“These isolated actions that have jeopardized the safety of individuals have been responded to with appropriate law enforcement actions,” the statement said.
No one from either agency was made available to answer questions from the Review-Journal. A scheduled conference call with reporters set for 3 p.m. Wednesday was postponed by two hours and then canceled altogether by the BLM and Park Service.
Federal law enforcement officers, also heavily armed, are providing tight security to contract cowboys from Utah who were hired by the government for almost $1 million to round up as many as 900 cattle that Bundy has left to roam on federal land despite not paying grazing fees for the past 20 years.
Two federal court orders issued within the last year called for the rancher’s livestock to be impounded from a vast swath of mountains and desert. That roundup began Saturday on almost 600,000 acres of land closed to the public during the operation.
As of Wednesday, 352 animals had been rounded up amid mounting criticism from some Nevada officials.
Gov. Brian Sandoval on Tuesday slammed the BLM for creating an “atmosphere of intimidation” and called on the agency to dismantle two so-called “First Amendment areas” it set up for demonstrators well away from any roundup activity.
The former federal judge said he told the agency “that such conduct is offensive to me and countless others.”
“No cow justifies the atmosphere of intimidation which currently exists nor the limitation of constitutional rights that are sacred to all Nevadans,” the Republican governor said.
On Wednesday morning, before news broke of the scuffle between protesters and the BLM, Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., sent out a statement expressing “great disappointment with the way that this situation is being handled.”
He said he spoke to newly confirmed BLM director Neil Kornze and “told him very clearly that law-abiding Nevadans must not be penalized by an over-reaching BLM.”
“After hearing from local officials and residents, and receiving feedback from the Nevada Cattlemen’s Association in a meeting this morning, I remain extremely concerned about the size of this closure and disruptions with access to roads, water and electrical infrastructure,” Heller said. “I will continue to closely monitor this situation, and urge the BLM to make the necessary changes in order to preserve Nevadans’ constitutional rights.”
Kornze is a Nevada native who spent eight years as a senior policy adviser for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid before joining the BLM.
Reached for comment before Wednesday’s altercation between rangers and demonstrators, spokeswoman Kristen Orthman said: “Sen. Reid hopes the trespassing cattle are rounded up safely so the issue can be resolved.”