LAS VEGAS — To self-described militia members sleeping in wind-whipped tents, drinking camp coffee and patrolling rocky hillsides with military-style weapons, protecting Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and his family from an overreaching federal government is a patriotic duty.
“There are people out here who will sacrifice their lives and their fortunes and their sacred honor to defend them,” said Jerry DeLemus, a camouflaged former U.S. Marine sergeant from New Hampshire who called himself the leader of a Bundy security force of some 40 people.
“If someone points a gun at me, I’ll definitely point my gun back,” he said.
The armed campers are still guarding Bundy’s melon farm and cattle ranch a week after a tense standoff between gun-toting states’ rights advocates and federal Bureau of Land Management police over a roundup of Bundy cattle from public rangeland.
The BLM backed off, citing safety concerns. They were faced with military-style AR-15 and AK-47 weapons trained on them from a picket line of citizen soldiers on an Interstate 15 overpass, with dozens of woman and children in the possible crossfire.
BLM police released the 380 cattle collected, gave up the weeklong roundup and lifted a closure of a vast range half the size of the state Delaware. The agency said it would resolve the matter “administratively and judicially.”
Left unresolved was the government’s claim that Bundy owes more than $1.1 million in fees and penalties for letting some 900 cows trespass for 20 years on arid rangeland of scrub brush, mesquite, cheat grass and yucca near the rustic town of Bunkerville, about 80 miles northeast of Las Vegas.
Bundy backers claimed victory.
“We won the battle of Bunkerville,” said retiree Bevalyn Marshall, 53, who heads home at night to nearby Scenic, Ariz., but returns by day with her shotgun and her Vietnam veteran husband to a makeshift stage lined with fluttering flags.
It’s a place where conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh’s voice spills out of travel trailers, and a woman waves a sign at passing traffic reading, “Come Stand With Us For Freedom.”
Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., called Bundy’s supporters “domestic terrorists” and said a federal task force was being formed to deal with the unrest. Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., told a KSNV-TV interviewer on Friday: “What Sen. Reid may call domestic terrorists, I call patriots.”
Where Heller saw Boy Scouts, veterans and grandparents cordoned off by federal agents, Reid saw a crowd of 600, including men armed with automatic weapons in sniper positions on the freeway overpass, and women and children facing BLM agents in the riverbed below.
Bundy, the 67-year-old patriarch of a Mormon family with more than 50 grandchildren, seems to enjoy the attention. He met the media this week flanked by personal guards headed by a man who called himself Buddha Cavalier.
Bundy took to the stage fashioned from a flatbed trailer to tell reporters he wants sheriffs around the country to seize weapons from federal bureaucrats. He invited everyone to a Friday barbecue at the Virgin River, and rode a horse waving an American flag for photographers.
Then he headed to a Fox News trailer for an interview with conservative TV commentator Sean Hannity.
Bundy said he doesn’t recognize federal authority on the land his family settled and has used since the late 1870s, when Bunkerville was founded.
His dispute with the BLM dates to 1993, when the government designated the scenic Gold Butte area as protected habitat for the endangered desert tortoise and cut his allotment of cows. Bundy quit paying grazing fees that today can be as little as $1.35 per cow per month.
The agency canceled his grazing permit and ordered him to remove his cattle. Federal judges upheld the agency action.
The dispute has reopened a debate about federal land ownership and states’ rights in a Western region where the BLM controls vast stretches of rangeland. Federal park, military and land agencies today control more than 85 percent of the land in Nevada. In New York, by comparison, the figure is about 1 percent.
“This would never happen in any state east of the Mississippi, because they own their own land,” said Janine Hansen, a state’s rights advocate.
Not everyone supports Bundy’s resistance. Andy Robinson, a pub and pizzeria owner in the nearby resort town of Mesquite, said he didn’t like bloggers and radio talk show hosts comparing the standoff with deadly federal confrontations at a religious compound in Texas in 1993 and a farm house in Idaho in 1992.
“Being compared to Waco and Ruby Ridge doesn’t help anything,” Robinson said.
Ammon Bundy, 38, one of 14 Bundy children, was hit with stun gun darts fired by BLM agents during a confrontation 10 days ago. He was not charged with a crime. He said his father received several certified letters this week from the BLM, but hasn’t opened them.
BLM spokesman Mitch Snow said the letters offer Bundy a chance to keep his cattle if he pays the $1.1 million in trespass fees, plus “reasonable expenses of the impoundment.” Agency officials have said the contract for the roundup was $900,000.
Demar Dahl, a prominent rancher who pays his grazing fees, said he knows Bundy won’t back down. “He’s got his mind made up that he’s not going to leave,” Dahl said. “Cliven is the last man standing. He has taken the position that the state of Nevada owns the land, not the federal government.”
DeLemus and other armed campers say they have no plans to leave. They suspect government drones and helicopters are watching them.
“We stay until the Bundys tell us we can go home,” said Jack Commerford, DeLemus’ friend from New Hampshire who drove 41 hours cross-country with a yellow “Don’t Tread on Me” flag.