Rancher's standoff taps into resentment of federal government

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BUNKERVILLE, Nev. -- Cliven Bundy stood by the Virgin River up the road from the armed checkpoint at the driveway of his ranch, signing autographs and posing for pictures. For 55 minutes, Mr. Bundy held forth to a clutch of supporters about his views on the troubled state of America -- the overreaching federal government, the harassment of Western ranchers, the societal upheaval caused by abortion, even musing about whether slavery was so bad.

Most of all, Mr. Bundy, 67, who was wearing a broad-brimmed white cowboy hat against the hot afternoon sun, recounted the success of "we the people" -- gesturing to the 50 supporters, some armed with handguns and rifles, standing in a semicircle before him -- at chasing away Bureau of Land Management rangers who, acting on a court order, tried to confiscate 500 cattle owned by Mr. Bundy, who has been illegally grazing his herd on public land since 1993.

"They don't have the guts enough to try to start that again for a few years," Mr. Bundy said in an interview.

Mr. Bundy's standoff with federal rangers -- propelled into the national spotlight in part by steady Fox News coverage -- has highlighted sharp divisions over the power of the federal government and the rights of landowners in places such as this desert stretch of Nevada, where resentment of Washington and its sprawling ownership of Western land has long run deep.

His cause has won support from libertarian Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who is likely to run for president. Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., referred to Mr. Bundy's supporters as "patriots." Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who has a long history of pushing for public lands protection, denounced the rancher's supporters as "domestic terrorists."

For now, Mr. Bundy appears to have won, forcing the government to back down after its rangers were met with armed Bundy supporters this month. "The [cattle] gather is now over," BLM's deputy assistant director, Craig Leff, said. "Our focus is pursuing this matter administratively and judicially."

But if the federal government has moved on, Mr. Bundy -- a father of 14 and registered Republican -- has not.

He said he would continue holding a daily news conference; it drew one reporter and one photographer Saturday, so Mr. Bundy used the time to officiate at what was, in effect, a town meeting with supporters, discussing in a long, loping discourse the prevalence of abortion, the abuses of welfare and his views on race.

The crowds may be beginning to dwindle, but for much of the past two weeks at Mr. Bundy's ranch in Bunkerville, 80 miles northeast of Las Vegas, the rancher has been a celebrity, drawing hundreds of supporters, including dozens of militia members -- many carrying sidearms -- and members of Oath Keepers, a militia group, who have embraced him as a symbol of their anger and a bulwark against federal abuse.

He was feted at a celebratory party Friday night attended by 1,500 people, who wore "domestic terrorist" name tags, listened to cowboy poetry and ate hamburgers, hot dogs and Bundy beef. "This is the beginning of taking America back," said Shawna Cox, who had come from Kanab, Utah, to support him.

Mr. Bundy, whose family has grazed cattle here since they homesteaded in the 1870s, owes the government more than $1 million in grazing fees. He stopped paying after the bureau ordered him to restrict the periods when his herd roamed the 600,000-acre Gold Butte area as part of an effort to protect the endangered desert tortoise.

Mr. Bundy's case happened to heat up around the time that Mr. Paul, building the foundation for a presidential campaign, struck a chord with some Republican Party members with warnings about governmental overreach. Mr. Paul's latest book is titled "Government Bullies: How Everyday Americans are being Harassed, Abused and Imprisoned by the Feds."

In the Bundy standoff, Mr. Paul has criticized the federal government for overreaching with its use of environmental regulations, but cautioned against any violence or lawbreaking.

Rob Mrowka, a senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity, which has been battling to get Mr. Bundy to move his cattle in deference to the tortoises, said the standoff had come to symbolize divisions across the country about the role of government, particularly here in the West. "It's symbolic of the polarization and divide within the country that we saw starting with the Obama election," he said. "This is merely a surrogate for bigger issue and topic in America today -- it's the whole idea of federalism versus states."

The federal government owns 85 percent of the land in Nevada, a statistic repeatedly noted by Mr. Bundy's supporters as they denounced federal actions.


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