War for the West: Cliven Bundy v. federal government

Volunteer Militiamen form the center of the line of armed protesters preparing for battle against armed federal agents lined up on the other side of the viaduct. Bunkerville, NV. Image courtesy of Whiteout Press

Hundreds of illegally grazing cattle were round up, prompting a militia of heavily armed cowboys to assemble against a heavily armed federal force in the middle of the Nevada desert. Ranchers prepared to fight for their property in the name of state sovereignty. This is not the beginning of a Spaghetti Western or a nineteenth century history lesson; this happened just last week, 80 miles out of Las Vegas.

Cliven Bundy is the owner of the cattle in question, and the loudest voice for the temporary forces that gathered outside of Bunkerville, Nev. They may be short on land management research, but they’ve sure got a lot of heart, a lot of guns and are willing to die for a cause that has been lost twice in the courts and directly contradicts the miniature pocket constitutions they carry.

Bundy has been fighting a relatively silent legal battle with the federal government for the last 20 years. In 1993, the Gold Butte area in Southern Nevada that Bundy and his Mormon ancestors had been grazing for over 100 years was designated as Critical habitat for the desert tortoise. This designation imposed a $200 dollar per head of cattle, per day fee upon grazers in the area. Bundy refused to pay, in fact, he flat out denied the existence of any authority of the federal government over him or his cattle.

“I believe this is a sovereign state of Nevada,” said Bundy in a radio interview with The Dana Show, a conservative radio broadcast. “I abide by all of Nevada state laws, but I don’t recognize the United States government as even existing.”

The BLM (Bureau of Land Management) responded with a court order to seize all 900 of Bundy’s cattle that graze on federal land. On April 5, 400 cattle were rounded up by hired hands and held in pens awaiting auction or transport to Utah.

Source: Vice Magazine
Armed federal officers mobilize outside cattle pens near Bunkerville, Nev. Image courtesy of Vice Magazine

By April 10, a small group of armed cowboys, protesters, and militia had gathered at a sight near the holding location of Bundy’s cattle. By April 12, the BLM backed down and returned the cattle to their owner, citing safety concerns for themselves and the civilians.

“Based on information about conditions on the ground, and in consultation with law enforcement, we have made a decision to conclude the cattle gather because of our serious concern about the safety of employees and members of the public,” BLM Director Neil Kornze said.

No shots were fired during the standoff and nobody was injured.

It appears that if you can’t win your case in court, then make your stand on the open range. But what were they standing for? Bundy claimed to be fighting for state’s rights above any personal interest in his own cattle holdings.

“We are after freedom. We’re after liberty. That’s what we want,” said Bundy in an interview with Fox News correspondent Sean Hannity, who has been championing Bundy’s cause in his coverage of the standoff.

Bundy claims that he owes allegiance only to the ‘sovereign state of Nevada’ and doesn’t recognize the power of the government, but it is written in Nevada’s own constitution in Article 1, Section 2 that, “the Paramount Allegiance of every citizen is due to the Federal Government in the exercise of all its Constitutional powers as the same have been or may be defined by the Supreme Court of the United States.”

Bundy supporters such as Nevada Assemblywoman Michele Fiore might have been surprised about the wording in the constitution that they were upholding as well.

“When in the heck do we send our federal government, with arms, to collect a bill?” Said Fiore in an interview with MSNBC host Chris Hayes.

In the very same section of the Nevada Constitution, just a few lines down, it states, “whensoever any portion of the States, or people thereof attempt to secede from the Federal Union, or forcibly resist the Execution of its laws, the Federal Government may, by warrant of the Constitution, employ armed force in compelling obedience to its Authority.”

The lawful backing of the Bundy cause is fatally flawed, but this was more than a legal battle. The issue ran through the courts for twenty years and fine upon fine has been imposed on Cliven Bundy, but what happened on April 12, is bigger than a simple land dispute. When the BLM turned their backs on the Bundy supporters they proved a point that has important consequences regarding another constitutional premise; a national premise that provides that a well-regulated militia is vital for the security of a free state.

In the standoff outside of Bunkerville, an armed militia was used to stand up against the federal government, and although their cause may have been flawed, they proved that a militia can be used in the interest of the people to supersede federal law without any blood being spilled.

This is an ideal that has now been presented widely to the public, mainly due to extensive coverage of the event by predominantly conservative news sources. Both danger and hope lie in the power that has just been exercised. A key form of influence upon our federal government has been tested, but the direction that it will take is unknown. The people have the power to stand up for what they believe in, and in this day and age there is a myriad of crises and causes that need standing up for: state’s rights, human rights, environmental rights, etc. But the true power lies in knowing when, where and how to make your stand. For Cliven Bundy it was last week in Bunkerville, Nev., surrounded by gun toting cowboys.