Cliven Bundy, the notorious scofflaw cattle rancher from Bunkerville, Nevada, was taking his midday nap when I arrived at his spread. One of his daughters — he has fourteen grown children, and they all seemed to have mustered at the ranch — told me that the nap was “very important” and our two o’clock appointment for an interview would have to wait for “whenever he wakes up.” I passed the time in the shade of the trees in his yard and talked with his militiamen, who looked miserable in the heat. They were awaiting an ambush by agents of the federal government, whose most oppressive arm, they assured me, was the Bureau of Land Management, a branch of the Department of the Interior. From across the country the militia had come to “make war” on the BLM, which manages more public land than any other federal agency.
In April 2014, three weeks before my visit, the BLM had begun to impound Bundy’s herd, which had been illegally grazing on a 578,724-acre parcel of public land in the Mojave Desert known as the Bunkerville Allotment of the Gold Butte range. The BLM planned to sell the herd in order to reimburse the public for an estimated $1.1 million in grazing fees and fines that Bundy owed. Bundy, decrying federal tyranny and vowing to do whatever it took to protect his rights to graze his cattle, called in the press to witness the start of a “range war” on Gold Butte. On April 9, a few days after the roundup began, one of Bundy’s sons was shocked with a taser after he attacked a BLM officer. Video of the conflict was posted on YouTube and became a right-wing cause célèbre. Fox News showed Bundy parading in his white hat, on his white horse, carrying an American flag that billowed in the Nevada wind. At least a hundred men and women converged on Bundy’s ranch, anticipating the next Waco. They brought with them semiautomatic handguns, large-bore revolvers, assault rifles, and don’t tread on me flags.
People began calling the BLM with death threats. Bundy supporters tweeted the home address of a former U.S. Forest Service biologist now working for the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit that monitors conditions on Gold Butte, and threatened his family. The FBI told him to leave his house. BLM managers who had no law-enforcement training — biologists, ecologists, rangeland conservationists — took to carrying pistols as personal protection for the first time in their careers. Employees in the field were warned to pair up and to go nowhere on Gold Butte without alerting their superiors.
On April 12, a crowd numbering in the hundreds shut down Interstate 15 in both directions. Snipers from Bundy’s militia took positions in the thorny scrub along the highway. A group of Bundyites on horseback rode down a hillside to face the BLM rangers. There were fingers on triggers on both sides. “If a car had backfired,” a militiaman told me, “the shooting would have started.”