The first of three trials of 17 defendants involved in the 2014 standoff between rancher Cliven Bundy, his supporters and the Bureau of Land Management is set to begin Feb. 6 at a federal courthouse in downtown Las Vegas. Defendants face up to 15 counts of charges including threats and assault on a federal officer. The trials are expected to take several months to complete. Lower-level defendants will be tried first, followed by standoff leaders including Cliven, Ammon and Ryan Bundy. The first group to be tried includes Eric Parker, who was famously photographed pointing a rifle toward federal agents during the Nevada standoff, as well as Richard Lovelien, Orville Scott Drexler, Gregory Burleson, Todd Engel and Steven Stewart.
The case will rehash the tense standoff in which federal agents attempted to impound Bundy’s cattle near his ranch in Clark County. Faced with reportedly hundreds of people gathered to protest, many bearing firearms, they backed down. The roundup was the last resort for the feds, who had tried legal means to force Bundy to pay his grazing fees for over 25 years. As of late last year, Bundy cattle still illegally roamed BLM land, and he owes $1 million in unpaid fees.
Yet the trials beginning this week are about much more than trespassing cattle; they symbolize what people on both sides of the political spectrum describe as a longstanding war in the American West over how to manage public lands and other natural resources. Cliven Bundy and many of his supporters believe the federal government has no legal grounds to own public land and has no jurisdiction over state or local authorities. But mainstream legal experts say this is misguided and conservationists insist collaboration with the feds is necessary to protecting fragile landscapes. The Las Vegas trial comes three months after the acquittal of Bundy’s sons, Ammon and Ryan, and five other defendants for their armed occupation of Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in January 2016.
We will be reporting from the ground on the Nevada trials. Below, what the staff of High Country News is reading to prepare:
- The Las Vegas Review-Journal has been covering pretrial proceedings for months, including prosecutors’ requests to restrict defense attorneys from arguing that the Bureau of Land Management does not or should not own the land where Bundy’s cattle were rounded up. On Feb. 2, a judge agreed to dismiss one count. Review-Journal reporter Jenny Wilson has been tweeting the court hearings.
- One of the case’s key players will likely be one-time BLM special agent in charge for Utah and Nevada, Dan Love, who helped orchestrate the Bundy cattle roundup. Love appears to be a somewhat polarizing figure, described as bold by his supporters and arrogant by critics. A former Utah BLM director Juan Palma defended Love earlier this year. “People try to blame (Love)” for the Bundy standoff, Palma told HCN. “But he was just the person that was called to be there and do all of that.” Love is also known for leading a 2009 raid in Blanding, Utah, of the residence of two people accused of trafficking archeological artifacts from local public lands. One of the accused committed suicide the following day, leaving deep wounds and resentment in the local community. Reread Los Angeles Times’ coverage of the events.
- Potentially further complicating Love’s role in the trial, the Office of Inspector General released an ethics report on January 30, about an unnamed special agent. The Review-Journal reports that defense attorneys in the Bundy trial may believe the report is about Love, which means it could come up in the trial. The OIG investigation describes a BLM agent using his position to get tickets to Burning Man in 2015 and intimidate his colleagues.
- During the trial, we will likely hear from the Bundys and their supporters on their beliefs around public lands and the U.S. Constitution. In the Malheur occupation trial in Portland last fall, Ammon Bundy took three whole days to discuss his personal story, including his beliefs on these topics. We’re rereading the U.S. Constitution and this HCN article that explains why the founding document does not support the claim that the federal government cannot own land in the West. We’re also rereading the report authored and approved by offices of 11 attorneys general in Western states last fall that found similar arguments circulating in Utah were deeply flawed.
- Cliven Bundy believes that the land his cattle graze is the jurisdiction of the “sovereign state of Nevada.” Read this Atlantic article to understand how that contradicts the state constitution. For a historical look at land use tensions between the federal government and ranching communities in Nevada in particular, check out “The Angry West: Understanding the Sagebrush Rebellion in Rural Nevada,” by environmental and Western historian Leisl Carr-Childers.
- For background on the Sagebrush Rebellion in Nevada and beyond, we’re turning to HCN archives:
- For background on Cliven Bundy, we’re rereading from HCN:
- Several defendants in the Malheur federal case who have yet to be tried, will face charges in Portland, Oregon, on Feb. 14. Oregon Public Broadcasting reported a tip that felony charges for at least four of the seven remaining defendants will be dropped, and those defendants will plead guilty to a misdemeanor trespassing charge. For background, we’re revisiting:
Correction: This article originally stated that a federal judge dismissed one count of conspiracy to impede or injure a federal officer, when in fact, she dismissed a count of use and carry of a firearm in relation to a crime of violence, according to a spokesperson at the U.S. attorney's office in Nevada. Tay Wiles is an associate editor at High Country News. She can be reached at 415-730-8991, firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @taywiles
- Cliven Bundy
- Sagebrush Rebellion
- Ammon Bundy
- Public Lands
- Bureau of Land Management
- Department of Interior